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What Louisville Eighth Graders Learned From a Trash-Filled Barge

Just off of the Louisville wharf, there’s an unusual sight: several barges, a painted towboat and lots of trash. This is the floating headquarters of Living Lands and Waters, a nonprofit that will spend the next week in Louisville leading river cleanups and education sessions.Living Lands and Waters founder Chad Pregracke shows me around. On the main barge, there are classrooms and staff living quarters. Everything’s really clean and nicely organized. But there are a couple of other barges attached. Pregracke points to one of them.“So on the other barges, there’s literally, I think, there’s about three to four thousand tires on there, easy,” he said. “Everything’s pretty muddy, because that’s how it comes in when you bring it in.”

If you have a hard time picturing several thousand tires, it’s a huge pile. These are all tires pulled out of the Ohio River. That’s what Living Lands and Waters does. It offers educational programs to local schools, pairing river cleanups with classroom sessions aboard the barge about the river and the environment.This morning’s cleanup crew, an eighth grade class from Louisville Collegiate, is in the barge's classroom, talking about what they found. One student tells about a basketball, one a wheel. Another recounts finding a homeless camp on a nearby island.And all of their finds are outside, piled on yet another barge, awaiting sorting and eventually recycling.“There’s 55-gallon barrels, there’s 5-gallon buckets, there’s garbage cans, there’s chairs, there’s TV sets, there’s stereos, there’s parts of port-a-potties,” Pregracke says.It’s a lot of stuff. And this is the haul from just half a day of river cleanup. They didn’t find any on this day, but Pregracke says messages in bottles are common. He’s got what he claims is the biggest message in a bottle collection in the country; it’s up to about 70. Some have sheet music inside, some money, some bible verses. One just has a picture of Bill Clinton.

“Most of them are pretty heavy…a good percentage of them, maybe a third, are meant for nobody to find them,” Pregracke said.Some people write to lost loved ones, some toss in suicide notes.The students are the second part of Living Lands and Waters’ equation. Pregracke started the organization when he was 17, and now, 17 years later, he wants to show kids why the river matters.“Because getting the river clean and keeping it clean is two different things, you know, and so that’s where they come in,” he said. “Because they’re not only the future, but they’re the present.”The barge is in Louisville hosting student groups until Oct. 18,  when it heads downriver. All of the student sessions are booked, but Living Lands and Waters will hold two public river clean-ups in town: Saturday, Oct. 11 and Saturday, Oct. 18 at 11 a.m. Groups will meet at Cox Park, off of River Road. To sign up, call (309) 732-6461 or email grace@livinglandsandwaters.org.

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