Picking Up the Message

Volunteers drive the success of the Great American Cleanup.

Editor’s Note: Each spring, Keep America Beautiful (KAB) runs the Great American Cleanup, the nation’s largest community improvement program. For three months, more than 3 million volunteers and attendees go to work beautifying parks and recreation areas, cleaning seashores and waterways, running recycling collections, picking up litter, planting trees and flowers, and conducting educational programs and litter-free events. Waste Age asked KAB president and CEO Matthew M. McKenna to articulate the spirit that drives the event.

Each spring, Keep America Beautiful (KAB) brings together thousands of local organizations and millions of individuals to invest their time in creating better communities. With Waste Management as a national sponsor and many local partners as well, the waste handling and recycling industries play a huge role in our success. The results never fail to astonish us.

From the beginning of March to the end of May in our nation’s cities, suburbs and tiny farm towns, nearly 4 million regular folks willingly sacrifice their treasured weekend mornings. Instead of a leisurely cup of coffee on the patio, they fill a Thermos, don work gloves and sturdy boots, and set out purposefully for a day of hard, sometimes grueling work.

As they begin their day, most probably don’t give a thought to a larger purpose, to the philosophy or deeper meaning of community service. And why should they when there’s a task to accomplish? But there is greater value here and deeper meaning that can’t be relayed by the results alone.

When they first arrive at the park, schoolyard, overpass or lakefront, volunteers quickly realize that they are not alone. Joining them are tens or hundreds of others, some familiar faces, some not. Together, they get their assignments and set off to work, side by side. By the end of the day, they will have accepted a challenge, flexed their muscles and, ultimately, succeeded together.

Especially today, as many of our communities struggle with budget shortfalls and the myriad side effects of an economic slowdown, this work is even more important. Certainly volunteerism has a dollars-and-cents value, saving municipalities funds that would otherwise need to be passed on to the community in taxes.

But there is an even greater value in volunteerism that can’t be reduced to a balance sheet. KAB’s mission is to engage individuals in the environment and the community improvement process. Why? When people unite, they build consensus. They find common identity in their shared values. They agree on a goal and a way to achieve it. They understand, maybe for the first time, that the whole of the community is greater than the sum of its parts.

At KAB, we think that this spirit is at the heart of our society, and is what makes America truly great. It is definitively “patriotism,” and it is a powerful force. Whatever our differences — age, nationality, physical ability, political persuasion — none of them really matter when we’re working together. A community, like our environment, is a shared space.

In a few short weeks, we’ll be launching the 2011 Great American Cleanup with a citywide event in Phoenix. If last year is any indication, events will touch over 33,000 communities nationwide. Again, we’ll remove staggering tons of debris, recover millions of pounds of recyclables, and build enthusiasm for recycling and cleaner communities. Yet no magazine article could ever convey the essence of what it means to give your all to your community. For that you will have to get involved. You’ll have to take part as individuals and as companies in the waste industry. We hope you will. Learn more, and find your local KAB affiliate at kab.org.

Matthew M. McKenna is president and CEO of Keep America Beautiful, Inc., headquartered in Stamford, Conn.

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