Category Archives: river cleanups

Volunteers Never Tire

Underwater LeavesPhoto by Robert Barossi

by Robert Barossi

After a week or so off from the blog, and from life in general with a little much needed vacation, it’s time to get back to the volunteer stories. And yes, this post’s title is one of my worst puns ever, since this story involves volunteers pulling tires out of a river. Coming out of Connecticut, the story is notable for just how many tires volunteers found: 420. That’s a lot of tires to pull out of a three mile stretch of river. A number of groups worked together to achieve this important cleanup effort, including the Boy Scouts, the Railroad Museum of New England and the Naugatuck River Revival Group.

For more inspiring stories of environmental volunteers and their amazing work, download my eBook – Being Where You Are: How Environmental Volunteers Impact Their Community and the Planet Every Day



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A Roundup of Volunteer River Cleanups

IMG_1096(Photo by Robert Barossi)

by Robert Barossi

One of the most common ways for volunteers to get involved in their local environment is through river cleanups. Local rivers are often in dire need of help and dedicated volunteers are there to answer the call. They are often on and in their local river all year long and in all kinds of weather. And it’s the kind of volunteer story I like to highlight on here from time to time. Here are just a few recent ones:

A “Source to Sea” cleanup effort recently took place along the Connecticut River, in locations from its source near Canada all the way to the Long Island Sound.

The annual Rivers Alive cleanup recently took place along bodies of water in the Athens, Georgia area.

Volunteers have been working to clean the Bakulahi River in India.

With similar cleanups happening in Florida and Wyoming.

If you’ve enjoyed the stories on this blog, download my eBook – Being Where You Are: How Environmental Volunteers Impact Their Community and the Planet Every Day. Available at the following links.



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Places and People Change but the Story is the Same

Creek(Photo by Robert Barossi)

by Robert Barossi

In many places, environmental volunteers are performing unusual and unique tasks. There are without question many different roles they can play and a wide range of things for them to do. On the other hand, many volunteers are doing the same kinds of things over and over again, in many different locations. While it would be nice to have problems end so that their work isn’t needed anymore, that just doesn’t happen. And when I’m looking for environmental stories, it’s typically the same kinds of stories I see over and over again. For example, this wildlife rehabilitation story out of Texas, so similar to the work being done by rehab volunteers around he world. Or it might be another great story of volunteers doing anything they can to clean up a local river or waterway, this one in Maryland. While it’s inspiring and exciting to see some of the more unusual and fascinating things environmental volunteers do, it’s important to remember the equally inspiring dedication and passion they bring to the same kinds of jobs, repeated over and over, wherever the work is necessary.

Environmental Volunteering as A Spiritual Calling

IMG_1584(Photo by Robert Barossi)

by Robert Barossi

It’s been a difficult week for getting on here to post new stories. Back on track soon, but for today, I’m going to post another chapter from my upcoming book (which now has a cover design and it’s extremely cool, if I may say so myself). Here’s another one of my favorite volunteer interviews:


A Spiritual Calling: John Messerschmitt

While religion and spirituality came up with a number of volunteers, there was nobody for whom it was as important as John Messerschmitt, who is both a minister and a psychologist. Sitting in his home office, I asked him what to call him and he said jovially, “you can use doctor cause I’m a psychologist or reverend cause I’m a minister. If title’s matter, put them in. If they don’t, leave them out.” I left them out and just called him John. Although he is an ordained minister, he does not have parish. Rather, he works as a licensed psychologist and pastoral counselor, seeing all types of people including a significant number of clergy and their family. Now semi-retired, he still puts in twelve of fifteen hours of work “for pay,” he says. The work, and the time spent outdoors, must keep him young, as he looks to be nowhere near his early seventies.

           While John now lives in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, he is originally from New York City, where he recalls taking walks in the Bronx Park and Botanical Gardens with his father, something he considers highly influential in terms of his love for the outdoors and the environment. Growing up there and having the opportunity to find those special places where he could play in the woods or lose himself in the outdoors allowed him to connect with nature but also not take it for granted.


After attending Bronx High School of Science and City University of New York in Manhattan, John left the city for Cornell University. He had studied biology as a high school student and an undergrad, with the intention of getting his master’s in wildlife management.

“For a variety of reasons, I determined not to stay in the field of biology and that’s what brought me back to the city to go to the theological seminary,” he says. “There was always that spiritual side to it. My mind is such that I’ve always wrestled with spiritual issues. Those two things are kind of intertwined.”

“The spiritual and the environmental?” I ask.

“For me, there’s a huge connection,” John says. “And there are people who have gotten into this much more deeply than I but just to throw out a term or two, there’s eco-spirituality or eco-theology. The basis of that is a reworking of western, especially European, understandings of the theology that has been the more dominant one for many years, based on the genesis story, where in the myth, God tells Adam and Eve that they are in charge, that everything is lower than them and they are in charge. At its worst, it’s to hell with everything else that’s nature because it’s all about human beings. If you destroy the environment, as long as it’s benefitting human beings, what’s the big deal? That’s the outcome of it. In a way, religion in Europe until the 20th century, and in America, has in a sense been either naive or ignorant about environmental issues or even anti-environmental. The eco-theological or spiritual movement has said that’s a mistake, that a re-reading more deeply and more carefully of the biblical message, especially the Hebrew prophets, has an image of God saying, ‘as human beings you are stewards of the environment, you have the opportunity to take care of and care for the environment, not to dominate it or destroy it for your own ends. To be aware of what’s going on, to be actively involved in aspects that are environmental.’ You think about other people and by extension think about all of creation and that’s the other big theme, that the force or power, what we call God, doesn’t just create human beings, it’s all part of creation, it’s all part of the mystery of spiritualty. To see all of creation, form the beginning of time, in a way, there’s a powerful and profound mystery that we should take some responsibility for. That’s been important for me. If I’m out there abusing my old body helping to clean up Housatonic River, somewhere at least in the back of my mind is the sense that this is a spiritual calling, it’s not just a hobby.”

An active member of church and community, John has made a number of efforts to get involved in environmental activities and opportunities in the Berkshires. His main volunteer efforts involve river cleanups, which he gets to as often as he can and stays with as long as possible. “I have a back problem so I’m not always able to do the whole four hours out there,” he says.

“What’s the strangest thing you ever pulled out of the river?”

“Strangest thing we pulled out of the river,” he says, pausing to think back. “We pulled out some…well, I guess it was memorable, it wasn’t strange I suppose, but it was a tire, a big old tractor tire, a huge thing. Took us hours to dig it out of the mud and then to get it out of the river. That was one of the occasions with me standing on the side, shouting, ‘good work, guys!’” he says with a smile and a laugh.

John notes that he and some members of his church have been trying, with some degree of success, to get their church involved in “these ecologically concerned type enterprises.” This has led, he says, to collaboration between Berkshire Environmental Action Team (BEAT) and First Church.

“A colleague friend of mine, Dick Noble, he and I have been key guys at First Church in getting involved with BEAT,” he says. “That’s one of the things we try to do. This particular church wants to hold itself as being involved in the community, wants to get out there. This is a wonderful, spiritually motivated way to get out there and not only do something worthwhile but also to have it have a certain functional integrity. If we claim we want to care about God’s creation, let’s do it. Think globally but act locally, you know. There’s a river down the street and it’s been polluted for forty years, let’s see what we can do to make a difference.”

“Here I was, I was fresh of out of the city, in a sense my wife and I had begun to fulfill our dream because we wanted to get up to New England and be involved in nature and this sounded like a perfect opportunity,” John says of his first river cleanup, many years ago. “There was this river and it needs to be cleaned up. It’s something I can get my hands on, it wouldn’t be just theoretical, it’s concrete. It happened to be down the street, right on the other side of the bridge here, we could walk to it, so we did it.”

Seeing the results from the cleanups has been encouraging, John says, but there’s a negative side as well. He says, “You come back next year and you do the same thing all over again. It still kills me, there’s still a lot of people that unthinkingly just toss stuff. The Audubon Society has a couple of sanctuaries here, one not too far away. My wife and I walk there at least weekly, sometimes two or three times a week and it kills us, you can’t go for a walk without seeing water bottles lining the path…there’s that mix of seeing something worthwhile that you feel good about and at the same time, there’s a skeptical side, that says when are people going to get it?”

“The spiritual element, if it’s a motivating force that has somebody out picking up garbage, that’s wonderful. But the bigger issue, if one claims to be spiritual, is to step back and look at the moral, ethical implications of one’s activities or one’s inactivity,” John says. “That’s where the rubber hits the road. I find that discouraging, especially around here, there’s a significant number of people who go to churches and synagogues, but I dare say a very tiny, minuscule number consider their synagogue or temple participation as, ‘yea, what does that mean for the way I think about the environment?’”

“Do you think,” I ask, “that people would respond if there were environmental messages as part of religious services?”

“I sure would like to see some of the leaders in our religions try to find out. I don’t know, you’re getting into a bigger question,” he says. “What’s the impact of religious leaders, sermons and homilies, on the people sitting there, anyhow? A lot of research says it’s not very big. That most people go to church for the social connectedness, the security of being with people that presumably think like they do and sermons and homilies don’t have as much effect as one might hope. But that’s the point, how about the priest, rabbis and minsters getting the idea and at least giving it a shot? Maybe not just in sermons but in getting groups started and going out and cleaning the Housatonic River. If the leaders, the clergy leaders, would get more involved with this, I can’t but imagine it would have an impact somehow, a positive impact.”

For his part, John has helped to clean pollution from the Housatonic River, something that has taught him about people as well as ecology. “Did I learn it or did I see it illustrated, probably more the latter, that the stuff we throw in the river often makes it impossible for certain forms of live to survive in the river in any kind of healthy way. And likewise, rather amazingly even to scientists, once pollutants are brought down to a certain level, aquatic life comes back quicker than we thought,” he says. “So there’s a double thing, how sad that it’s been wiped out and still is being wiped out and how moving that nature rejuvenates itself when given half a chance to do so.”

“Do the environmental values and spiritual values just go together?” I ask

“For me they’re very meaningful,” he answers. “There’s no clash there. The clash, if you may have picked it up, is within myself. It’s not between science and ecology, it’s between keeping a positive sense of hope about these things and the constant temptation to become cynical or jaded and just say, ‘what am I wasting my time for?’ That’s the back and forth.”

Pressing the issue a little farther, I ask, “Can the environmental movement tap more into that spirituality? Should it?”

“I go with could and might, not sure that it should. Because I think there’s a lot of streams that feed the river in these movements, including the environmental movement, and one of them is pragmatic, just saying, ‘look, if the environment is cleaner and well taken care of that’s better for me and for my grandchildren, it’s better for society.’ It’s a deep value for me, which is spiritual, so it comes together that way. There could be others, where if someone could articulate that sense of connection in such a way that it was not parochial, non-denominational, that some people might be very affected by it in a positive way.”

“Are you hopeful?”

“My own hope is that people will go through an evolution and be, so to speak, inspired, spiritually or otherwise, to do something,” he says “My hope is that if people do enough of, for instance, cleaning the river, at least some of them are going to say, ‘what can we do to change things so it doesn’t happen in the first place?’”







After the Flood

Underwater LeavesPhoto by Robert Barossi

by Robert Barossi

On the radio this morning, there was a conversation about potential flooding in the middle of the United States, especially places like Nebraska and Iowa. There are a number of things that can go wrong for our rivers and flooding is just one of them, but it’s one that people don’t often think about until it happens to their own river, in their own backyard. It’s often, if not always, volunteers who are doing the work to lessen the impact of floods, piling sandbags along a riverbank, for example. Volunteers are also the ones who go back to the river after the floods recede, picking up the trash and debris left behind. Here’s one such story, from the Little Thompson River in Colorado. A similar article from a local news station describes how the Little Thompson River Corridor was ravaged by floods in 2013 and how volunteers now work to repair the damage.

Cleaning Rivers Everywhere

Winter Stream(Photo by Robert Barossi)

When it comes to environmental volunteers, bodies of water are often where the energy and efforts are focused. Rivers, lakes, streams, ponds and wetlands frequently receive the attention of volunteers, often working for a local environmental organization. From taking water quality samples to pulling piles of trash out of the water, there are a number of important tasks performed by dedicated volunteers.

According to the Napa Valley Register, volunteers have been an  important part of cleanup efforts along the Napa River, including removing 700 pounds of trash and debris. More than a ton of trash was taken from the Little Harpeth River, according to a similar article in The Tennessean. The event, which included a number of concerned groups in the area, featured 86 volunteers who cleaned up twenty-two miles of the river’s bank, eleven miles on each side. There may have been fewer volunteers, but a cleanup effort along the San Pedro River, mentioned in the Sierra Vista herald, was no less significant. And, of course, these efforts take place all over the world, as evidenced in this article from the Lancashire Evening Post, detailing a cleanup of River Ribble in Northern England.

Some of the environmental organizations involved in the above cleanups include:

Friends of the San Pedro River –

Preston Society –

Ribble Rivers Trust –