One family's efforts start a community tradition and improve our environment
By Richard Gaw
The 2013 volunteers at a dump site in Delaware, near White Clay Creek State Park.
By Carla Lucas
Fifteen years ago, when I walked along
the trails in White Clay Creek Preserve, I'd see piles of rusted
appliances, tires, bottles, and other dumped trash. I thought someone
ought to do something about it.
That “someone” turned out to be the April Schmitt, of Landenberg. What started in 2005 as a family service project for April, her husband John, and their children Courtney and Drew has grown into a community event that has cleaned up the above-ground dump sites in White Clay Creek Preserve in Pennsylvania, and White Clay Creek State Park in Delaware. More than 170 people have volunteered on the 14 clean-up projects April has organized over the years.
To find dump sites, April hikes in the winter, when there is little or no vegetation covering the ground. She goes off trail and looks around for stuff that protrudes above the ground. She says the worst dump sites are old farms and home sites. In the past, people would choose a washed out area, or a place where there was a depression, and dump stuff over the edge. These sites remain for years. “The trash does not belong in the park,” Schmitt said. “We all need to do more to minimize our polluting and waste, and I'm especially appalled that humans even consider dumping their waste in natural places. The need to remove man-made debris from parkland was completely logical for me.”
At a dump site clean-up project, the goal isn't to “cure” or remove everything, it is to take off the top layer of stuff. “You don't want to dig so much that it will create erosion and harm the area,” Schmitt said. “You want to get to a point where you no longer see man-made objects sticking out of the ground. Once the brush grows up in a cleared area, we hope it will look natural. We can't make the trash disappear, we just extract it and move it to a landfill.”
For the first couple of years, workers would drive the removed trash to the landfill in pick-up truck loads. Eventually they determined it was a better use of everyone's time to get a dumpster near the site and fill it.
In 2005, the four Schmitts removed an old washer and numerous bags of trash from a site near the David English trail. It was a small family affair.
“The volunteer work crews are by far the most important asset to all of these efforts,” Schmitt said. “Extricating trash can be pretty dirty and difficult, but carrying heavy loads out of the woods, sometimes uphill, is very exhausting.” Also since the second year, the staff, rangers, and/or managers at both White Clay Creek Preserve and White Clay Creek State Park have supported Schmitt's projects and helped to make them successful. After that first year, the family started recruiting friends to help, which was a great thing. Their children were attending Avon Grove High School at the time and found many willing to help from friends, teachers and even school board members. At their second clean-up, they moved lots of old appliances and 45 discarded tires in just one morning.
Recently, about a third of her volunteers come from the members of the Wilmington Trail Club, another organization Schmitt has joined.
Word of mouth brings new people out to help. At last year's spring clean-up, 47 people gathered along Sharpless Road in the Preserve. They removed 35 extra-large bags of dump waste and cleared twice as much volume of invasive plant species from the adjacent trail side.
The annual spring dump clean-up projects Schmitt organizes are in conjunction with the wider Christina River Watershed Clean-up (CRWC) each year. April and John participated in the first CRWC in 1992 when they heard about it from a friend. “We were impressed and have participated in most of the clean ups each year,” she said. “Over the years, all of the CRWC sites have cumulatively removed more than 360 tons of tires, appliances, household items, and other trash from within the extended watershed.
“Although most cleanup projects seem overwhelming, any effort to remove debris, no matter how small, will result in some positive impact on nature. Volunteers get a lot of satisfaction seeing how their efforts can restore an area back to its natural beauty."
Schmitt will add anyone interested in helping on future dump site or invasive species removal projects to her database and mailing list. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.