Hundreds pitch in to help clean up Arkansas River

A volunteer on a kayak paddles back to shore with a trash bag during the 15th annual Arkansas River Trash Roundup in downtown Wichita on Saturday. (April 23, 2016)
A volunteer on a kayak paddles back to shore with a trash bag during the 15th annual Arkansas River Trash Roundup in downtown Wichita on Saturday. (April 23, 2016) Eagle correspondent

Samantha Ballard had never volunteered for anything before, but she was eager to take part in the 15th Arkansas River Trash Roundup on Saturday morning.

“Always driving around, you see how dirty it is,” Ballard said as she took a break. “It’s a nice opportunity to do some good.”

Ballard had plenty of company downtown along the river: Organizers of the event planned for perhaps 900 volunteers, but quickly ran out of T-shirts and aluminum grabbers to pick debris off the banks and from the water’s edge.

“It’s great — I’m so happy to see this happen,” said Cindy Lee, a city employee who acted as coordinator and spokeswoman for the cleanup.

Volunteers fanned out from Herman Hill Park and the Lincoln Street Dam on the south to the Keeper of the Plains and Riverside Park to the north.

A few got creative in their cleaning efforts: a man in a kayak put a black trash bag on the bow and paddled around the river, plucking trash from the current. At least one person sat on the edge of the bank, a long pole stretching out over the water. But he wasn’t hoping to catch a fish; he was trying to nab trash.

The cleanup was aided by a pleasant spring morning: sunshine, warm temperatures and a refreshing south breeze.

For many, it was a family affair. Vincent and Lucia Braun dragged their children downtown to take part in the cleanup.

“We woke them up, too,” Lucia said, grinning. “They didn’t like that.”

But they managed to get into the spirit of the morning soon enough.

“It feels good to get out and clean up — help make the Earth a better place,” said April Monroe, who is engaged to the Brauns’ son Steven.

Vincent clambered down concrete to get to the river’s edge so he could pluck plastic grocery bags the color of tar from the water.

“After 20 years in the Army, this is easy work,” he said.

This was the second year for the Brauns to help clean the river. For Lydia Santiago, it was her third consecutive year.

“The turnout is huge this year,” Santiago said, looking up and down the river as she stood across from Exploration Place.

Foam cups, plastic bags, cigarette butts, beer cans, gum wrappers – volunteers were stuffing all sorts of trash into their bags and then going back for more bags once those were full.

A quartet of Goddard High School students were already filling their second bags of trash about an hour into the event. Science teachers at the school had made them aware of the cleanup, they said.

“I would have slept in,” senior Liberty Hinkle said with a grin, her eyes wistful.

Only one of them was able to score a T-shirt, and that’s because sophomore Mia Miller can still fit into a child’s size. But the soundtrack of their morning was punctuated with frequent laughter, reflecting a group that was in good spirits.

“It’s a nice day, so that helps,” senior Jordan Humphrey said. “That definitely helps.”

Stan Finger: 316-268-6437, @StanFinger