Students Learn Lessons Cleaning Up After Others

Teacher Rob McKinley helps A-Venture Academy students clean up trash along the Seekonk River. (Todd Corayer/ecoRI News photos)

Teacher Rob McKinley helps A-Venture Academy students clean up trash along the Seekonk River. (Todd Corayer/ecoRI News photos)

By TODD CORAYER/ecoRI News contributor

PROVIDENCE — “If you see a syringe, just leave it alone,” volunteer Dave Henault said. You can’t be too careful when you’re climbing through the bushes, cleaning up what disrespectful people have callously thrown away.

With the guidance of Henault and Bonnie Combs of the Blackstone Heritage Corridor, seven freshmen and sophomores from the city’s A-Venture Academy created an impromptu parking-lot classroom Sept. 15 on the rocky shores of the Gano Street boat launch. Armed with garbage bags and wearing bright-orange vests, the high-school students broke into groups and, based on the amount of trash clinging to rocks and bushes, there was much work to be done.

This small cleanup was part of the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit began these annual cleanups 25 years ago, and since then voluneers have collected some 144 million pounds of trash.

Dave Henault and Bonnie Combs weigh trash collected at Festival Pier in Pawtucket.

Dave Henault and Bonnie Combs weigh trash collected at Festival Pier in Pawtucket.

Save The Bay coordinates the Rhode Island cleanups. Combs helps organize the events, and Henault, who owns Ocean State Tackle and has a passion for clean rivers, happily helps fund them. All the trash collected was identified, logged and sent to July Lewis, Save The Bay’s volunteer and internship manager, who tracks the results from all the statewide cleanups. There are many moving parts to picking up other people’s trash.

“You have to get these kids outside,” principal John Gallo said, smiling through every sentence.

A-Venture Academy teaches 120 at-risk students who benefit from small classrooms and a structured, constantly positive environment. A teacher for 13 years at Hope High School, Gallo was part of a group of educators who saw potential in students struggling through a traditional learning environment and set out to create a solution. Four years later, they found a home in what was the Windmill Annex Elementary School on Branch Avenue and a collection of dedicated teachers, such as Rob McKinley.  

Balancing on a ragged shoreline, McKinley is quick, quick to answer a question, quick to make directions clear, quick to smile. He was as busy as his students, picking up just as much trash while consistently redirecting them to stay focused on their task. Kids who have had a tougher-than-most childhood will make you earn their respect and that doesn’t come from yelling at or talking down to them.

“This is science in their own backyard,” Gallo said. Standing on filled land at the Seekonk River’s edge, looking over a rubble-strewn bank slowly surrendering a coil of rusting cable, he advised his student R.J. to wait for the ebbing tide before attempting to retrieve a rust-red tire.

Thirty minutes into their volunteer work/learning experience, students were filling trash bags, discovering horseshoe crab shells and watching bait fish circle the dock piers. They expressed surprise at things many take for granted. They also found a groove with their work.

Rap lyrics boomed from student Eliezer Colon’s cell phone, buried deep in his sweatpants pocket, as he reached to pick up another cigarette butt. Flashing a big smile, he palmed back his close-cut hair while making it clear he wanted to look fine for the story.

“I want to see my face in the paper,” he said with a good laugh, holding his hands up to estimate the photo’s size, like a fisherman with a record catch.

“We created this program to help keep our kids in the Providence schools,” said Gallo, noting the benefits of retaining these young students in their own communities.

In Pawtucket, at busy Festival Pier, the students walked the parking lot and river’s edge, picking up more bottles, fishing leaders with hooks intact, and several deceased menhaden washed up along the boat ramp. Fishing line, lure packaging, cigar wrappers and plastic lighters were all strewn across the pavement, or blown into the mulched perennials or jammed between sections of floating dock. The students and volunteers could have spent days here just picking up cigarettes.

R.J. kneeled on the dock, cupping his hands in the water with the hopes of catching a silverside. “I know I can catch one, I know I can,” he said quietly. Others gathered around him, and to the hard, sharp lyrics of Kodak Black and gulls circling overhead, their voices grew louder as they spied blue crabs, peanut bunker and more shiners.

It was old and new: remnants of our industrial past just a long cast from a dock full of young people working on their best chance for success. The river showed off some of its potential, providing a little magic to a half dozen teenagers who let their guard down long enough to kneel on a dock and try to catch a few tiny fish.

By just after noon, the students had collected no less than 339 cigarette butts, 32 plastic cups and plates, 151 plastic bottles and 41 pieces of tobacco wrapping. From the Gano Street boat ramp alone, the students had picked up and cataloged 41 pounds of trash. At Festival Pier, they picked up another 34 pounds of what some people think is acceptable to discard next to a river, including 163 bottlecaps, 47 plastic bags, 42 feet of fishing line, and personal-hygiene products.

Back in Providence, on Branch Avenue, they waited for calzones at Jeanette’s Bakery Shoppe as an arm reached out the passenger-side window of a speeding Honda to throw a plastic bag into the wind.

Rhode Island resident Todd Corayer runs a blog called Fish. Wrap. Writer.