Spring marks the beginning of Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s annual stream clean up program, Project Clean Stream (PCS). Through PCS, the Alliance offers hands-on opportunities through our partnership with residents, local businesses, environmental organizations, local governments, community groups, houses of worship, schools and universities, to come together to take action to restore clean waters to local streams, creeks, and rivers. PCS started over a decade ago as a one-day event with a couple clean ups. Now, PCS brings together thousands of volunteers watershed-wide for an entire season of clean up events.

John Long from “Clean Bread and Cheese Creek,” has been participating in Project Clean Stream and leading clean up events along Bread and Cheese Creek since 2008. I had the pleasure of interviewing him to learn more about his experience with PCS, and to see if he has any advice for people who want to lead their own clean ups. I asked John how he first got involved with PCS, and he said, “The reader’s digest version is that I purchased my grandparents house and there is a stream that runs along side of it. I was dismayed at how horribly polluted the stream had gotten since I was a child. I used to play with frogs in it and chase tadpoles, and there was no trash in the stream back then.” John bought his grandparents house which is right along Bread and Cheese Creek in Dundalk, a neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland.

Doug Stanley from Dundalk, MD, helps to clean up a stream. (Alexander Kellum)

John’s first clean up was in the Fall of 2008. He, along with a couple of his friends, used leftover trash bags from the Alliance’s prior Project Clean Stream season in the Spring for their first ever clean up event. The group picked up trash along the first mile of the four mile Bread and Cheese Creek. Just from that one mile, they filled an entire 40 yard dumpster with trash. The following year, John and his friends joined PCS again in the Spring, and continued to have PCS events each year after that. John said, “Each time we would pick a new section until the stream became much more manageable. When we were first starting, we were pulling out tires and refrigerators…it was just insane. Fast forward to now, we mostly find fast food debris.”

John’s group of friends volunteering started expanding more and more. On top of Bread and Cheese Creek, they added a clean up at Bear Creek. “There is a playground and the Bear Creek Elementary nearby Bear Creek, and you just can’t have all that trash near those kids. We also started working on Stansbury park, which was also in really bad shape. Every year it just feels like we are adding more and more sites.”

Since 2008, when John first got involved with Project Clean Stream, he has recruited a total of 6,045 volunteers at 80 different clean up events and has collected a total of 286.13 tons of trash!

John believes in making the most out of his clean up events by providing an enjoyable experience for his volunteers. “My whole thing is that if I am the spokesperson for it, I have to make what can be a nasty job enjoyable. For example, a couch that has been sitting in a stream all through the summer and smells like death – you just have to laugh about it and once people see you laugh about it, they will help.” John kept reiterating that it is all about a team of volunteers coming together, getting to know one another, and having fun. He says it’s important to keep the group joking and laughing so that they’ll come back. He also told me about how he makes a contest at every clean up of who can find the weirdest thing. “We take them up to registration, take pictures, post on our Facebook page, and laugh about it.” Along with the jokes, he also emphasizes the importance of treating your volunteers like you would family and friends. “Treat people well and they will keep coming back. Treat them like family and friends and everything is more enjoyable that way.”

Clean Bread and Cheese Creek has grown so much, John says, that people come from across the country to see how he runs the clean up events. “People have told us that they want to see what we are doing and how we are doing it since we are so successful. It all comes down to making the job happy and fun. Thank people and show your appreciation. They don’t have to be there and they don’t get a paycheck.”

I loved interviewing John because of how passionate he is about his clean up events. I asked him what his favorite part of doing Project Clean Stream is and he said, “My favorite part is either how streams or parks look after we leave or it’s the kids. It’s a toss up. I mean I love seeing the kids…when you get kids that are enthusiastic. ‘Oh my god, I found this and I found that!’ They are just so happy to be cleaning up. Both of those are just incredible.”

If John could give any advice to someone looking to start a clean up in their local community, it would be to just start.

“That’s the best thing to do. Just start. Even if it’s just you. When people see what you’re doing they will join, it will trickle. I mean, you just have to start somewhere. Nobody is going to do something for you. I get calls all the time from people asking me when I’m going to get to their community. You can’t do that. You know, we are just a group of volunteers and I tell them, I can tell you where to get resources and where you can get supplies and advertise on our Facebook page for you. But I am not going to do it for you. Because we learned that a long time ago when we first started that if you do it for somebody then in a couple weeks it will go back to the way it was before. But if you get the community involved in it and they are pulling trash out on a hot day or rainy day – then they are not going to let it happen again.”

The Alliance’s Project Clean Stream will kick off on April 4th, 2020 with clean ups taking place across the watershed, and will run through June 2020. To be apart of these amazing efforts or to register a clean up site in your own neighborhood, visit the Alliance’s website at allianceforthebay.org/pcs.