(Photo courtesy of Gary Chamberlain)

Youth take on highway litter

Several stretches of Arizona highways remain litter-free thanks to Folksville USA — a virtual anti-litter town organized by Gary Chamberlain, a member of American Legion Post 135 in Cornville, Ariz.

In 2009, Chamberlain and a friend cycled a 20-mile scenic highway route connecting Cottonwood, Ariz., to Sedona and became "disgusted" by the amount of trash along the highway’s median. "This could be one of the most beautiful rides in the country for locals and tourists if it wasn’t marred by the items that folks toss out of their vehicles," Chamberlain said. He took action in restoring Yavapai County’s surrounding highways back to what he described as "America the beautiful" by organizing Folksville USA.

Folksville USA’s first highway cleanup involved 300 people, many of them veterans, who filled 404 33-gallon bags with litter from a 30-mile highway stretch. While the virtual town continues to keep highways litter-free in Yavapai County, Chamberlain also developed a program called BagReadyJobs that empowers youth groups to develop personal and civic responsibilities, fundraise, and keep America beautiful.

Youth groups that participate in BagReadyJobs adopt a section of a highway to clean up by contacting their local Adopt-a-Highway program. Once a section has been assigned, they fundraise for their respective program by negotiating a fee with local businesses or Legion posts for every 33-gallon bag filled with highway litter; the fee is $7 to $10 per trash bag. The youth groups are paid after they provide the donors with a copy of Adopt-a-Highway’s confirmation letter stating that all service requirements were met, including the quantity of trash bags filled. The bags are left alongside the highway for four days to create public awareness and education.

"Until there is education, awareness and participation taught in the home, schools, churches, newspapers, television and radio shows, we will never conquer littering of any kind," Chamberlain said.

Youth groups have financially benefitted from the BagReadyJobs program over the past two years, raising more than $13,000 from Yavapai County businesses and Legion posts, Chamberlain said.

"These young people are our future leaders, and it takes an investment by businesses and community leaders to promote a productive and effective society," he said. "Success with our community businesses has been outstanding because they want to support the youth groups, clubs and organizations that wish to ‘earn’ their donations. This is a win-win opportunity for everyone."

The BagReadyJobs program also asks participants to describe in a five-question essay what they learned from cleaning the highways and how they plan on making things better in the future. The questions are:

  1. What did you learn?
  2. What are the solutions to reversing the occurrence of highway litter and increasing recycling?
  3. How does highway litter impact the economy of your community?
  4. How does highway litter reflect on your residents?
  5. What are you going to do to make a difference?

Saquioa Trujillo was among a group of Cottonwood Boys and Girls Club participants who earned $200 last year by filling 20 bags with litter from a two-mile section of highway. In her essay, she wrote, "One of the biggest things that I learned while picking up trash is that it can really cause a lot of damage to the environment and all of the animals that live there. I also learned that it is really hard work picking up trash after everyone. Even though it was a long four and a half hours, I’m so glad I have done it. It is an experience that I will remember for a long time. I have driven by all that trash many times and never thought how much work it is to keep the roads looking nice and the environment clean. I don’t think other people think about it either because we picked up so much trash. I won’t throw my trash out the window anymore and I am going to tell other people to be more careful too."

Many Yavapai County Legion post members are also doing their part in keeping highways clean. Members of Post 25 in Cottonwood recently filled 23 33-gallon bags with trash.

"This program is wonderful," said Sherie Mercier, Arizona’s District 8 commander. "BagReadyJobs helps clean our highways, empowers our youth and helps veterans take pride in a job well done."

Chamberlain hopes that other cities and towns will work with their local Adopt-a-Highway group and replicate the BagReadyJobs program as a learning opportunity for youth to "contribute to America the beautiful," he said.

For more information on how this program could work for your city, town or state, contact Gary Chamberlain: folksvilleusa@gmail.com