In 2019, I was working at the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay as a Chesapeake Conservation Corps member when I was suddenly handed a key role in coordinating the Alliance’s annual Project Clean Stream. I had very little experience helping to lead multi-event programs and less than a year of nonprofit work under my belt, but I  dived in headfirst and helped coordinate hundreds of stream cleanups around the watershed. I did it again in 2020 and 2021,  the COVID years, and will again this year,  for the last time. Through three years of helping manage the program, I have gained a whole new appreciation for picking up trash, forming relationships with communities, and what it means when you bring those two things together a.ka. building bonds through project clean stream. 

March through June are my favorite months at the Alliance because it means I  get to spend more of my time working outside with volunteers. After finishing winter planning and organizing these cleanup events, it’s always nice to go out and experience a few in person. These in-person events remind me why I love my work. 

A little background on Project Clean  Stream. Now in its 19th year, it’s a boots-on-the-ground effort that directly impacts our communities. Since its launch in 2004,  we’ve seen the volunteer-powered program expand significantly. What started as a  single-day event has turned into a year-round effort. Each year, the cleanups bring together thousands of volunteer conservationists from communities and companies throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. 

Every year that I have worked at the  Alliance, we have hosted a Project Clean  Stream kick-off day on the first Friday of April out of our Annapolis headquarters — focusing efforts on Eastport neighborhood streets that drain into Back Creek. The event never fails to give our staff not only a hands-on understanding of the work involved but also a boost of energy and motivation from meeting volunteers and hearing how meaningful and fulfilling the cleanup is for them. 

“I enjoyed walking the streets of Eastport to pick up garbage,” volunteer Chloe Obara said at last year’s kickoff. “Many folks walking by smiled and thanked us for what we were doing. Having just moved to the  area, it felt great to be making a difference  in my community.” 

“Even though I’m not from the area,”  said Abri Segal, another young volunteer,  “it felt great to be able to help clean up the  neighborhood because every bit of trash  that we collected helped the environment  in the long run.” 

Project Clean Stream Fall 2020 Kick-off at Alliance Headquarters office in Eastport, MD. Photo Credit: Will Parson, Chesapeake Bay Program

Each of the Project Clean Stream events around the Bay watershed has what we call a “site captain” — our main contact for the event and generally the person in charge of finding a cleanup site, coordinating supplies (we supply trash bags, gloves, and trash grabbers) and organizing volunteers. The captain takes on the brunt of the work the day of the event.  

In fall 2020, I had the pleasure of meeting John Long, one of our most dedicated site captains, who coordinates an annual stream cleanup (Clean Bread and Cheese Creek)  in Dundalk, just outside  Baltimore. When I arrived at his “headquarters” on the day of the event (I was surprised to learn it was his own house),  I received a warm welcome and tour of his well-outfitted sign-in tables, complete with hand sanitizer, trash-collecting supplies, and, most importantly, snacks! 

John Long at his registration station set up in his front yard in Dundalk, MD Photo Credit: Lucy Heller, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay

John looked at my feet and noticed I  was wearing sneakers (you would think  I’d have known better), then he told me to go around to the back, where I would find a trailer full of waders and boots. I didn’t expect to find a group of teens ready to help. “What’s your shoe size?” one asked. 

These teenage neighbors of John’s have been participating in cleanups for as long as they can remember. John later told me that he’s watched them grow up. “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. … They are just so happy to be cleaning up. Both of  those are just incredible.” 

That day, I joined a teacher, two students,  a mom, and some of the teens removing trash from the stream. We laughed at the sheer nastiness of some of the items we encountered, and we forged ahead cheerfully even after water came up over our boots,  soaking our socks. Though it wasn’t my neighborhood, for that entire day I felt a part of the community, and I could see firsthand how the work formed bonds between neighbors, even if they’d never met before. 

Since 2008, when John first got involved with Project Clean Stream, he has recruited a total of 6,045 volunteers at 80 different events and, he calculates, collected more than 286 tons of trash. John stands out as an exceptional volunteer because of his passion for keeping his neighborhood clean,  preventing trash from affecting his local waterway, and ultimately having an impact on his neighbors. John is but one example of how Project Clean Stream spreads through communities and influences people throughout the watershed.  

I grew up in the Baltimore County countryside. I loved having the space to run around and play in the backyard, but our closest neighbors were 10 acres away,  and I had no idea who they were. I didn’t have neighborhood hangouts, block parties,  trash cleanups, or children my age to hang out with just a couple of blocks away. I  loved my childhood, but part of me feels  I missed out a little on having a local community to grow up and learn from. 

This spring will be my last time coordinating Project Clean Stream as I take on new responsibilities in our communications department. I wish it were possible to shake the hand of each of the volunteers and site captains and tell them how they helped form my own sense of community.  My time has with them has shown me the importance of getting your loved ones,  your community, and even strangers to form lasting relationships by, of all things,  picking up trash. 

Interested in building bonds through Project Clean Stream in 2022? Learn more here.