By Barb Arland-Fye
My family loves the Mississippi River and is blessed to watch its many moods from our house in LeClaire. Because of our fascination with “Old Man River,” we chose one year for vacation to follow the Great River Road. Along the way we stopped in Memphis, Tenn., where we walked on a replica of the Mississippi River in Mud Island River Park.
Earlier this month our son Patrick had the opportunity to revisit Memphis as one of nine students participating in St. Ambrose University’s Alternative Spring Break with Living Lands & Waters. The university offered other “alternatives,” but Patrick couldn’t wait to dig in with the cleanup crew in Memphis.
Living Lands & Waters’ founder is Chad Pregracke, a Quad-City native, whose passion for the Mississippi River inspires everyone he meets. Chad made a huge impression on Patrick during the service trip in Memphis, which brought together students from across the U.S. to pull debris from the waters and shores of McKeller Lake. Patrick described Chad as “very passionate. He’s crazy in a good way. He’s motivational. He said to us, ‘We’re going to war with trash.’ He also said, ‘I don’t care why you’re here, but I’m glad you’re here.’”
Aside from his love for the river, Patrick’s motivation for participating in the Memphis cleanup was inspired by the mission and vision statements of St. Ambrose University. “I wanted to make a difference and share my talents and grow as an individual and spiritually. Being an Ambrosian means being out in the community,” explained my somewhat shy son, “doing work and social activities, helping the environment and the community. That was what interested me in doing this trip. Also, I live near the Mississippi, so it’s dear to me. The environment is important to me. We need to take care of this river because it is one of our most sacred resources. It is literally life.”
During the Memphis cleanup, crews picked up trash ranging from plastic bottles, beer bottles and toys to Styrofoam, a toilet seat, tires and a propane tank. “We created a human chain to get the trash on the barges. It was nice to see the visible green spots that had been previously covered with trash.”
Crews worked Monday through Thursday with an hour-long lunch break on a barge. One evening the Ambrosians visited the National Civil Rights Museum — the Lorraine Motel, where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. “It was very somber,” Patrick said. Seeing the balcony where King was murdered left an indelible memory.
The Ambrosians also were dinner guests of St. Ambrose University alumni, a husband and wife, who shared their enthusiasm for their alma mater. During a visit to the Rock ‘N Soul Museum, Patrick was impressed to see a guitar played by Elvis Presley, a rock ‘n roll legend who died two decades before Patrick was born.
Reflection was also a part of the experience, said Chris Clow, who accompanied the St. Ambrose students and serves as the university’s director of music and liturgy. “Being there and in the midst of Creation and seeing what has happened to it; I think that was the most eye-opening thing for the students,” observed Chris. “That’s the thing in our conversation that kept coming up.”
“It makes you think,” Patrick said. “Even though we’re doing something that’s small, over time it’s going to make a difference. We’re protecting that sacred resource.”
(Editor Barb Arland-Fye can be reached at arland-fye@davenport diocese.org)