How a Pandemic Allowed Me to Start My Own Environmental Organization
If there’s anything that the Coronavirus pandemic has taught people, everyone could agree how it has helped us cherish the precious time we have on Earth and just simply being alive. For others, this goes further by instilling in them a greater appreciation for the natural world. That’s exactly what happened with me.
I still remember clearly when the Coronavirus pandemic was in its nascent stages, the news flooding in from Wuhan that shook the world with details of flu-like symptoms, the immediate lockdowns, and death tolls that no one had anticipated. However, from the perspective of the United States, such a calamity felt as if it were worlds apart, too far to be deemed consequential or of significant concern. For my small hometown of LaGrange, located in west central Georgia, it seemed to be even farther. None of us thought that the outbreak would spread to several nations much less traverse across the world to wreak havoc in the U.S. Like nonchalantly shooing a fly away, the dialogue was perfunctory in its acknowledgement of the virus’s existence while comparisons to influenza served as a rosy deflector.
“It ain’t nothing too bad. It’s just like the flu which will only affect older people,” some citizens posited. “The numbers coming out of China are not as bad as how many people the flu kills each year,” others claimed. People in my town were shrouded in conspiracies and began to incoherently switch between the notions of a hyped flu-like illness and the incredulous theory that China had developed the virus itself, accidentally releasing it. No one knew anything at the time, and I was up to my ear in college work trying to graduate with a biology degree. Although I paid close attention to the outbreak’s progression and incoming scientific data, I let it slip from my mind.
I had recently returned from a trip to France, Morocco, and Spain, enjoying the recent adventures while doubling my efforts to be an honor graduate. The world was still turning, still busy in all its endeavors both frivolous and crucial alike, so it was like sitting back and allowing everything to play out as if it were a movie. Then, the delusions of safety and sempiternal power that many in the U.S. held onto were abruptly shattered in the beginning of 2020, upending lives while resulting in the worst economic fallout since the Great Depression. By mid March, I quickly went from trudging through classes on campus to stuck at home with a laptop, uncertain of how that year would unfold as the virus began to take hold of America. Wearing some PJs, seeing the national emergency declaration on CNN, and my mother frantically trying to shop for toilet paper completed the mess that would portend disaster.
Flash forward to May and things only became even more uncertain. By that point, I had finished my classes and was set to receive my degree on stage, complete with accolades and fanfare from family. Like millions of other students, those plans were whisked away faster than a ship enduring a sudden tempest. With my academic career suddenly over at the click of a button instead of walking in cap and gown, I joined a plethora of others around the country in search of a job. After almost two months of applications, I finally landed a temporary position at The Home Depot on a freight team since positions in the field I wanted to pursue were greatly affected by the pandemic. I felt nothing short of disappointment and experienced what could have been described as internal stagnation, almost as if I weren’t getting anywhere so far in my post-college life.
After having aimlessly navigated through a summer filled with perpetual worry over the deteriorating conditions of the U.S. and its lack of cogent leadership, coping with mental health struggles from isolation, having dodged the virus multiple times at work as others around me fell ill, indulging in several books, and trying to save as much as possible, I was running out of motivators. At other times, I ventured out to some of my county’s lake access areas to clean up litter and spend time with nature, something that I had done often previously to both make a difference and to seek emotional healing. After all, my goal is to become a conservationist and to utilize my knowledge in Biology so that I can help preserve our planet’s vast biodiversity as well as its natural resources.
Visiting those sites numerous times and wishing that my county would try harder in its efforts to keep our public lands/water clean, inspiration suddenly struck, giving me a new source of hope to move forward with. Quickly formulating a plan in addition to generating some fresh ideas for local government entities to consider, I emailed my county’s commission chairman to discuss them. They consisted of 1) to install security cameras in the parking lots and around the picnic areas, 2) to erect signs in the areas that displayed statistics regarding the harmful impact litter has to deter people from doing so, and 3) to create a watch group of people hired by the county to monitor and clean up the access areas, focusing on employing those who were financially struggling from the pandemic.
The commission chairman, Patrick Crews, surprised me by his gratitude and reciprocal enthusiasm to try and see if he could make some of those ideas become a reality. Initially, I was expecting resistance from him because, for one thing, my town is staunchly conservative in nature where many people believe that doing something as simple as caring for the environment constitutes you as a “libtard” or “tree hugger.” He broke that barrier and expressed his own passion for preserving the local environment, making sure that he would communicate my concerns to others while inviting me to collaborate with both him and the Corps of Engineers who oversee many parts of the river. From that point on, we frequently talked on the phone, throwing various statistics, aspirations, future plans, and personal anecdotes back and forth. This wasn’t walking on eggshells or trying to earn favors from a career politician. It was simply two people finding commonality in our love for the natural world.
At the same time, I went to Facebook and founded my own group so that we could venture out to an access area bi-monthly and clean as much of the trash as possible. I decided on the name Civilian Conservationists of LaGrange where our goals are to work to clean the lake access areas within the county, to promote public environmental education among the residents, and to partner with local leaders to foster change. Never did I realize how much of an early impact the organization would have as well as the attention it would garner.
Just a few short months after it was formed, it gained more than 20 members and received support from the county commission chairman, the West Point Corps of Engineers, my local Sierra Club chapter, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, and the Chattahoochee River Conservancy out of Columbus, GA. They were the best things that have happened for me thus far in my environmental activism and showed that times were beginning to change for LaGrange. People were slowly becoming more open to new beliefs and greater scientific expression. A climate rally I participated in late 2019 with the local Sierra Club chapter proved that, and the latest activities have only fueled greater efforts.
It wasn’t long before my group was featured in the local newspaper which only behooved us even more through the eagerness of other county residents who wanted to join. So many read and commented on the article before almost ten additional people sent the group membership requests via Facebook, and we couldn’t have been happier. As I write this, we have 23 members who are ready to help organize and allow our first official outing to take place once the holidays are over (they will be masked and distanced, of course). The plan is to meet at a certain lake access area, equipped with trash bags, litter grabbers, gloves, and masks so that we can spread out and coordinate an efficient cleanup that will be thorough.
To further describe how much the organization has been gaining momentum, the local Riverkeeper office sent me an email and asked my group to host a cleanup site for the annual Sweep the Hooch event for 2021. The man who usually hosts the sites for each event will leave one of them up to us while he and a different group would clean up another. There’s no way to articulate how honoring it is to help make a difference for the environment while inspiring others to do the same. Now that those plans have been set, the next course of action is to put up flyers around the county. I want to put them in convenience stores for one thing because I feel that the group would be strengthened by the support of avid fisherman who experience firsthand the devastating effects litter has on aquatic environments.
In the end, it’s going to take all of us to preserve our precious lands/waters, and caring for the environment should never be considered a partisan issue. The truth is that it simply isn’t. Harmful impacts on the planet always come back and endanger public health, so trying to pretend that nothing is wrong while preventing people from having access to clean food, air, and water is not only insane but barbaric. I founded my organization in hopes of showing people that being a good environmental steward doesn’t make you a spineless tree hugger in the eyes of conservatives. It shows that you not only care about the world at large but, through the actions of preserving the environment, you symbolically hug another human being. Your actions will certify that you care about other people regardless of differences in politics, religion, race, creed, and so forth.
Coronavirus has already taken away so much from us. However, this is our time to shine in so many ways, and founding my organization not only reinvigorated my purpose in life but it can inspire others to embrace nature more than ever. Instead of fighting each other and trying to sow the seeds of division, let’s come together and achieve something that’s bigger than all of us!