Renew Our Rivers provides environmental education opportunities to students across the state.

Demopolis High School senior Marlana Mitchell is beginning to understand what it means to be a good environmental steward. After volunteering with Renew Our Rivers, Mitchell is more aware of how actions today have a lasting impact on waterways that surround her community.

As a volunteer at the recent cleanup at Lake Demopolis, Mitchell and 30 classmates worked alongside volunteers that included employees of Alabama Power’s Greene County Steam Plant and students from Westside Elementary School, Demopolis Middle School and the University of West Alabama.

The 136 volunteers removed 6.6 tons of trash, 2,100 pounds of tires and abandoned watercraft weighing 1,500 pounds from the lake.

In the midst of collecting trash on this Saturday morning, Mitchell and her classmates found lessons of stewardship and the importance of giving back to their community, all through Renew Our Rivers.

“I learned that a lot of trash was on the riverbanks due to storms and floods. I never thought there would be so much trash on the riverbanks,” Mitchell said. “It is important for us to participate in Renew Our Rivers because we should all help keep our communities clean.”

Cynthia Phillips, an Advanced Placement physics teacher at Demopolis High School, encourages her students to participate in the Renew Our Rivers cleanup each year because of the educational and stewardship opportunities it provides.

“For many of our students, this is the first time for them to go out on a boat and see animals and wildlife that are part of the lake habitat,” said Phillips. “But more importantly, they learn what it means to be a good steward while also making connections with others in the community. For them, the experience is priceless.”

Like Mitchell, students across Alabama have had similar experiences learning about the environment through Renew Our Rivers.

“The students that come out and participate in a Renew Our Rivers cleanup get to see firsthand how trash from a roadside or parking lot can wash into a ditch and then into a river,” said Mike Clelland, an Environmental Affairs specialist who is Alabama Power’s coordinator of volunteers for Renew Our Rivers.

“And, as some of the trash that they remove has obviously been in the
river for many years, they become aware of how long even a little bit of trash can impact a river system.”

Phillips said her students leave Renew Our Rivers with a greater understanding about their role in the community.

“Every year after the cleanup, the students often say they didn’t realize how much trash was in the lake and what kind of trash is out there,” Phillips said. “It causes them to become more conscientious of where their trash goes.”

Since 2005, the Lake Demopolis cleanup has attracted hundreds of volunteers who have helped remove about 375,000 pounds of trash from the area. And for just as long, students from the surrounding areas have volunteered their Saturday mornings to make a difference.

Clelland said students, like the ones at Demopolis High School, need to continue to convey to others the importance of student involvement in projects like Renew Our Rivers.

“It’s important to get the next generation involved, to help create a vision and a mindset of the importance of keeping our aquatic ecosystems clean, for all things living.”

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Similarly, students from the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s (UAB) Honors College recently took part in a Renew Our Rivers cleanup at Valley Creek. Each year, the Honors College hosts a retreat for new students to the program. After seeing the impact of Renew Our Rivers last year, UAB chose the Valley Creek cleanup for its service component again this year.

“Our students loved the experience. Getting our hands dirty and getting to be a part of the process was very beneficial, especially after we saw the amount of trash. The students could see the difference they were making and that made a lasting impression,” said Mellissa Taylor, assistant director of honors advising and retention at UAB.

For students new to the program and to the city of Birmingham, the UAB Honors College incorporates a service learning initiative as a key part of the retreat.

_DSC7513“Service learning is a huge component of what we do in the Honors College. We want the incoming students to start off by giving back to the community that they are going to be a part of,” Taylor said.

The UAB Honors College is comprised of 1,300 students pursuing all majors at the university.

“The trash was overwhelming and I can’t imagine animals and plants being happy in this ecosystem,” said volunteer Sarah Sullivan, a freshman at UAB. “We really felt that this was a really good cause and we are glad for the opportunity to come here.”

This was the fifth annual cleanup at Valley Creek and it took place at three locations: Midfield, Bessemer and downtown Birmingham. Valley Creek begins in downtown Birmingham and flows through Bessemer, ending at the mouth of the Black Warrior River.

More than 300 local volunteers from the Water Management Authority Inc., Jefferson County Department of Health’s Watershed Protections Division and the Freshwater Land Trust worked alongside the UAB student volunteers and others to remove 10.32 tons of debris and trash from Valley Creek during the three-day event.

“It’s about making the connection for our students. They see that they can make an impact on their community and it enhances their student experience as well,” Taylor said.

Renew Our Rivers continues to host cleanups across the state. So far this year, more than 2,800 volunteers have removed more than 110 tons of trash and debris from Alabama waterways.

For more information on how you can volunteer with Renew Our Rivers, visit www.renewourrivers.com.

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