Summit speaker tells students to start change now, at home

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 11, 2013

High school students attending the National Environmental Summit gathered at Catawba College Tuesday to hear keynote speaker Chad Pregracke talk about his vision for the future.
Pregracke founded Living Lands and Waters, an industrial-strength river cleanup non-profit organization, when he was 23. He has been named a 2013 CNN Humanitarian Hero and was awarded the Jefferson Award for Public Service. Pregracke also began the MillionTrees program, which has given away and planted 600,000 trees since its founding in 2007.
The summit is an annual program co-hosted by the Center for the Environment at Catawba and Rocky Mountain Institute of Colorado. It’s a five-day camp that aims to give high school students inspiration and teach them strategies to spark change in their communities.
Pregracke came to share his story and tell the students that they didn’t have to wait until they grew up to be an agent for change.
Pregracke was born and raised in Illinois on the Mississippi River. When he was young, he spent six summers working as a professional clam diver on the river. While he was familiar with the river, he said diving gave him a different perspective. Digging clams out of the dark river bottom, he learned just how dangerous the river could be, but also that it was full of life.
It was then that he began to notice how dirty the water was. The river, he said, was a mess. Pregracke described inlets that stretched for miles completely coated in bottles, tires, or 50-gallon barrels — and he had the pictures to prove it. He saw refrigerators, cars, buses and sunken boats during those summers.
The Mississippi river is 2,000 miles long, drains 31 states and two Canadian provinces and is a source of drinking water for 18 million people. Pregracke hadn’t noticed the trash as a kid but soon began to hate it.
“I got sick of seeing it,” Pregracke said.
Just 17, Pregracke began making phone calls. He started out calling the state, but soon drafted a plan to clean 431 miles of river and began looking for sponsors. His big break came when he earned an $8,400 grant from Alcoa. Pregracke spent the next year cleaning out his stretch of the river, using his parents’ house as a base.
“I didn’t have the experience under my belt, but I knew what needed to be done,” he said.
Now, Living Lands and Waters has grown to more than 70,000 volunteers. It runs barges up and down eight major rivers and hosts community clean-up days that allow people to see for themselves the pollution in their own back yards. It also holds alternative spring breaks for college students and educational classes for teachers. Pregracke describes it as a huge team effort.
Pregracke said “Living Lands and Waters” has come a long way. Workers don’t revisit as many towns as they used to because the mentality about dumping trash in the river has begun to change.
The key is education and initiative. And that’s where the students come in.
Pregracke encouraged the students at the summit to start where they can. They’re the same age he was when he started hauling trash out of the river on his own. He told them to use their skills and learn about issues in their areas.
He said start local, because you never know where it will lead. “Change does happen,” he said. “It’s just a matter of where to start.”