Into the woods, out with the garbage

? 100-plus young volunteers clean up Thatcher Woods one beer bottle at a time. Trash may tip scale near 2,000 pounds.

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Last Saturday morning over 100 local citizens, the majority of them blessed with youthful energy and enthusiasm, left the forest preserves on River Forest's western boundary a little better than they found it. Area teenagers and younger kids accompanied by their parents fanned out through Thatcher Woods and the surrounding area to take part in the annual Desplaines River Cleanup.

While participation was down this year statewide, the River Forest Park District's Michelle Biondo said that this year's turnout was the best ever for River Forest. The effort was part of a greater state effort touted as National River Clean Up Week. Groups participating included Oak Park and River Forest High School, the United Methodist Church, and River Forest Daisy Troop #2793.

Just what did the cleaning crew find back in the woods?

"You can find everything," said Biondo. "Fire extinguishers, pieces of kitchen appliances."

There were the occasional novelty finds?#34;Daisy Troop #2793 was particularly fascinated with a dog's skull someone discovered. But the bulk of the trash collected consisted of the stuff commonly found littering forest preserve sites?#34;bottles, cans, plastic cups and Styrofoam, along with abandoned blankets and clothes.

Volunteers were allowed to pick where ever they wanted within an area from Madison Street on the south to North Avenue to the north, with a western boundary of 1st Avenue. Because of recent rains, however, workers were banned from picking up anything near the fast running Desplaines River.

Everyone received a clear plastic bag for collecting litter, as well as the use of a "sticker pole" for picking up trash, though not everyone used a pole.

The clean up effort was funded by a $500 grant from the Village of River Forest, as well as a $500 grant from the Illinois EPA as part of the SCALE program (Streambank Cleanup And Lakeshore Enhancement). In addition the River Forest Park District donated Biondo time and the efforts of several of its maintenance staff for trash pick up. The Forest Preserve District, understandably waived its fee for use of the Thatcher Woods Pavilion.

"They're very happy to have us come in and clean up," said Biondo, smiling.

Part of the federal Clean Air Act's overall funding, SCALE is intended to empower people to "clean up the mess made by others." While participation is down statewide, Biondo said Saturday's local event was the largest to date, with 120 people registered.

Of course, for the federal and state EPAs, the clean up is about environmental clean up and various related statistics. But for the mostly young participants, it was all about the fun of being outside on a pleasantly cool spring morning with their friends, decked out in matching T-shirts.

After returning from their collection trek, dad Matt Koritz stood by watching as his daughters, Katie, 5, and Anna, 4, headed to the registration table to collect their gustatory rewards.

Koritz, who said he'd hadn't visited the Forest Preserves previously, said he'd enjoyed accompanying his children.

"It's nice to see people come out and do some good work," he said.

His daughter Katie, intently munching a granola bar, was matter of fact about her accomplishments.

"I went into the woods to clean up the place," she said to a writer.

Asked what was fun about it, she replied "Being with my friends."

"And what about your dad," inquired the elder Koritz.

"Yes," answered his daughter, looking up with a gooey smirk.

Margie Cehander led over a dozen girls from Daisy Troop 2793. The girls, including Cehander's six year old daughter Emily, all attend River Forest's Lincoln School. "The girls voted overwhelmingly to do this," said Cehander. "Especially after hearing about the continental breakfast."

Actually, the goodies consisted of a light lunch, as well as a free T-shirt commemorating the event.

Cehander said the weather was perfect for traipsing about the woods hunting trash.

"They really liked it, being outdoors and looking for little bits of garbage," she said.

As some parents stood watch over their crowds of youngsters as they milled about a table loaded with breakfast goodies, other adults were over by the dumpster set in the middle of the parking lot, hefting their children up to the rim so they could look down and drop bags of trash in to the massive container.

Biondo said that the cleanup, which gathered 1,700 pounds of trash last year, looks to have gathered more this year. 

The park district plans to host a similar event the same weekend next year. For their part both Cehander and Koritz said they and their kids would be willing to come back for next year's clean up.

"Next year we'll do it as a Brownie Troop," said Cehander.

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