Gary Chamberlain is a man on a mission. In the last three years, the Vietnam veteran has taken on the task of cleaning up litter and garbage from the highways and streets around his community of Cottonwood, Ariz. Now he is taking his message to other communities that he visits.
“When you see how many bags of garbage we collect and how much stuff we pick up, you wonder where it all comes from,” Chamberlain said during a stop in Moab last week. “The purpose of my mission is to restore the beauty to ‘America the Beautiful.’ We are destroying our country with the amount of trash we allow to remain on the streets.”
Chamberlain, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam, and said he is a patriot and believes in this country. He said he wants to see Americans take more pride in their land and honor the men and women who serve in the armed forces by keeping the country clean of trash.
“People have become so desensitized to seeing trash on the side of road. It only takes a few of us to step up and start to make a difference,” Chamberlain said. “Whether you believe in what the soldiers are doing or not, we should be proud of them, and we should want them to be proud of us. I’m hoping to make things a little brighter by letting them see somebody doing something like this for their country back home.”
Much of Chamberlain’s efforts have been through working with the Adopt-a-Highway programs in various states to hold those programs responsible for the cleanup they are supposed to be managing. According to Chamberlain, when he approached the Adopt-a-Highway organization in Arizona in 2009, only 25 percent of the 30 groups who had committed to cleaning up stretches of the highways were honoring their commitment.
“People are not fulfilling their commitments. How can we criticize our politicians when we can’t count on each other to follow through with this obligation,” said Chamberlain. “I’m trying to breathe life into the Adopt-a-Highway systems in every state so they will hold their people to it.”
Two years ago, Chamberlain set out on a road trip to do just that. He admits he wasn’t well prepared at that time but said he is now better equipped to talk about the issue and raise awareness. On Nov. 19, Chamberlain’s efforts helped organize more than 300 people who cleaned up 400 bags of trash left on the side of a 30-mile stretch of highway in Arizona.
His work has also caused major companies to take notice. Some, including Home Depot and Garbo Grabber, have donated supplies to help with the cleanup. The two companies donated approximately 40 garbage-grabbing tools to Chamberlain and other volunteers.
“I have started getting local businesses involved by encouraging them to donate $100 to any youth organization that picks up 20 or more bags of garbage around town,” he said. “Some are also donating $10 per bag.”
Sara Melnicoff, founder of Solutions of Moab, a nonprofit group that works to reduce waste and expand the recycling efforts in the Moab area, met with Chamberlain on June 26 and agreed that more could be done.
“I think he has a great point. We are trashing our beautiful land with things we’ve ruined the land already to create. People are blind to what is really happening and what sort of trash is out there,” Melnicoff said. “He is trying to network and spread the idea to create a community-wide effort.”
Melnicoff also agreed with Chamberlain’s efforts to reach out to the youth of his community. She said getting the kids involved is an important part of growth and change.
“Kids mimic what we do. If they see us throwing trash on the ground, they will throw trash on the ground,” she said. “It’s a gateway activity to more self-reliance to get them involved in the cleanup effort. It’s sad that it has to be done at all, but that’s the way the world is.”
Chamberlain said he has had difficulty working with the Adopt-a-Highway programs so far, but he plans to continue his efforts in working to keep the roads clean.
“I want to make sure these programs are working and using the taxpayers’ money appropriately,” Chamberlain said. “If we can unite people in a community for a common cause, we can create a ripple effect. People will start to see the value of picking up the garbage and will become more used to seeing clean land.”
ByBy Charli Engelhorn