Teenagers who are willing to get up early on a Saturday morning to pull old tires out of a creek must really love their planet.
Twenty members of Woodland High School's Interact Club and 11 members of Cartersville High School's new Environmental Science Club, along with Cub Scouts from Pack 15 at Trinity at the Well and youth from Faith United Methodist Church, braved a chilly Nov. 16 morning to clean out more than a ton of tires, scrap metal and trailside trash like soda cans and drink bottles from a 1½-mile stretch of Pettit Creek along the Cartersville Parks and Recreation's Pettit Creek Trail.
"The bulk of our trash removed was old tires," Keep Bartow Beautiful Executive Director Sheri Henshaw said, noting she thinks the actual weight of all the debris might be closer to 2 tons. "We got probably close to 100 tires out of that part of the creek, including one very large tractor tire. One tire still had the rim on it."
But tires weren't the only things being pulled from the water.
"The most unusual item I saw was an old water heater, but there was also the remains of a toy helicopter, built like a toddler's pedal car," Henshaw said. "There were old bottles, washing machine parts, mostly things that would have taken a long, long time to deteriorate. These items had been there, illegally dumped, for some time, perhaps decades."
The director said Cartersville City Councilman Cary Roth reached out to Bartow County Commissioner Steve Taylor for assistance in getting that part of the creek cleared out, "as it had been the site of illegal dumping activities years ago when it was just a pasture with an old field road through it."
"I had been aware of it for some time, but previous efforts partnering with the city, local builders and the EPD [Environmental Protection Division] had only resulted in frustration and red tape," she said. "Since the city had built Pettit Creek Trail and the Reserve at Pettit Creek neighborhood had grown up around this site, on either side of the creek, the results were quite visible and impairing full enjoyment of the area.
"Also, from an environmental standpoint, the items we could remove, without further harm to the stream, we needed to get out of there, as that creek drains directly to the Etowah River and downstream to Rome. We always need to be sensitive to water-quality impact every time we go into a project such as this. Even stirring up a lot of sediment can severely reduce water quality for a time."
After being "called into action" by Taylor, Henshaw went about selecting the best area to clean up.
"I chose this section, with input from Councilman Ross and others, because it was the most visible to the most homes and trail users and because it was the easiest to manage logistically," she said. "Simply, we could make the biggest impact in the shortest time with a smaller group of people while testing out a number of things unique to this site and its problems. I am very pleased with how it turned out and what we learned from that process."
Henshaw said she also worked with Roth, a Rotary Club member, on lining up volunteers to help with the cleanup.
"Since I have been at this for a while, I had suggested that we would do best with a group not over 50 or so and keeping a ratio of adults to teens of at least 10 to 1," she said. "The most important thing we can do is to educate and keep people safe. While the actual cleanup is great, we never want that at the expense of anyone getting hurt so having enough adults helps a lot. [The teens] have so much energy. They can actually take on too much, and you have to remind them to stop and take a break, grab some water, stay hydrated. They have to be reminded that a mud-filled tire may be much heavier than it looks."
The sponsors of the two high school clubs were contacted and agreed to have their students help out with the community service project.
"I wanted Woodland High School’s Interact Club to be involved with the Pettit Creek cleanup because I felt it would be an awesome opportunity for the kids to go out and interact with our local Rotary members as well as give them an opportunity to take ownership in their community," said sponsor Dominic D'Agostino, who teaches English language arts. "Teaching young people that their community is an important part of their upbringing really makes them understand how important it is to give back and serve through community-based projects like this one."
"The cleanup was brought forth from the club members as something they would like to assist," said CHS sponsor Jeffrey Spratt, a biology and Advanced Placement environmental science teacher. "The club goes in the direction of the club's leadership with my guidance only."
After receiving information on safety, logistics and the watershed from Henshaw and Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman from Coosa River Basin Initiative, the ninth- through 12th-graders spent three hours removing as much creek bed and shoreline trash as they could.
"The water was deeper than we had hoped since it had rained for two days before, but I didn't want to cancel," Henshaw said. "It was cold that morning, but the kids jumped right in and showed no hesitation. While we were unable to remove some items — they had just been buried too deep — we did get a much larger amount removed than I had expected us to be able to remove. We are already discussing a return to that site to make our way further upstream with our efforts."
Henshaw said the club members were "wonderful to work with that day" on a project that required "a massive effort on their parts."
"The kids took on this huge task with enthusiasm and stayed at it steadily for a solid two-and-a-half hours," she said. "I cannot commend them all enough for the teamwork and how so many of them jumped right in. I could not have handpicked a better team, and I think all the adults with us would agree with that assessment."
She also commended the other two groups of young people for their efforts on cleanup.
"The work of the Faith United Methodist teens — loading and unloading the pickup shuttle, which traveled from shoreline collection points along the creek to the dumpster — was essential to the process, and the Trinity at the Well UMC Cub Scouts coming along to pick up along the opposite shoreline was a huge help as well since we were focusing on the eastern shoreline and the actual Pettit Creek Trail path and creek bed," she said.
Spratt said he was "truly amazed at the efforts of our students."
"After their initial trepidation, the students braved the cold waters to really embrace the task at hand," he said. "They scoured the briars for discarded cups and cans, uncovered long-forgotten tires in the cold waters and showed pride in their community. I believe they will grow into adults who continue to take ownership of the need to improve their surroundings. They also found out that you can volunteer and still have fun."
But, he added, "there is plenty more work to be done — we will be back."
D'Agostino said the results his club members achieved during the cleanup were "fantastic."
"The students were excited to participate in this endeavor and make a difference in their community," he said. "They are already begging for more opportunities to go out and serve. Teaching students more than just the educational curriculum is such a rewarding experience."
The excessive number of tires dragged out of the creek bed seemed to be the surprising find of the day.
"I think it was more of the shock value of 'Oh, wow. Someone threw away a tire in an area where the community is supposed to enjoy the aesthetics,'" D'Agostino said. "It was an eye-opening experience that made them appreciate the work they were doing because they saw the immediate impact it made on the environment."
CHS's Environmental Science Club, which is open to all students at the high school, first met in October to elect officers, but the groundwork for it actually began last year.
"We had several now-graduated APES students start working on the formation of the club last year," Spratt said. "They researched bylaws and governance, formulated the mission statement and gave us the tools to get the club started this school year."
The Interact Club, sponsored by the Rotary Club, helps students ages 12-18 learn how to be leaders.
"Local Interact Clubs bring young people together to develop leadership skills while taking action to
make a difference in your school and community, discovering new cultures, promoting international understanding, becoming a leader in your school and community and having fun and make new friends from around the world," D'Agostino said.