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'At The Forefront': 51 Years Later, Vermont's Green Up Day Still Inspires Community

people standing by trash truck
Anna Watts
Heather Remy, John Remy, Town Clerk Heidi Racht, Henry R. Carse and Knox Cummin at the Huntington Town Garage Green Up Day trash collection site.

Saturday, May 1, marked the 51st Green Up Day. During this uniquely Vermont springtime tradition, thousands of Vermonters take to the streets to pick up trash and debris.

The trash bags are still being tallied, but organizers told The Rutland Herald that many communities reported record numbers of volunteers this past weekend.

This Vermont tradition was something student journalists at the Community News Service wanted to dig into. CNS is a project of the University of Vermont Reporting and Documentary Storytelling program, and it dispatched dozens of young reporters across the state to speak with residents who participated in Green Up Day.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Community News Service audio editor and University of Vermont student Leah Kelleher. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: So, Leah, you are part of the team that put together an episode of the Community News Service’s podcast about Green Up Day. And you started with some of the history. So, what did you learn about the history of Green Up Day?

Leah Kelleher: Well, I think one of the most fascinating facts we learned was that Green Up Day is actually older than Earth Day by a week. The first Green Up Day was April 18, 1970, and I think that's pretty fascinating. You know, we think of the '70s as a time of environmentalism, and Vermont was certainly at the forefront of that.

Listen to Community News Service reporter Reed Nye's report about Green Up Day from Bolton.

And actually, that year, that first year, the interstate was closed from 9 a.m. to noon, which I know, at least for me, is pretty crazy to think about. And then following Green Up Day, a few years later, there was the first bottle bill that was enacted that help cut down litter. You know, people were seeing plastics and cans on the sides of the road as they cleaned up on that first Green Up Day. And Green Up Day has lived on, and it's grown from there.

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Leah, you're from Vermont, and you mentioned in the podcast how you grew up participating in Green Up Day, and so did the executive director of Green Up Vermont, Kate Alberghini. Let's listen to a bit of your podcast with her:

"On Facebook posts and different information that we get at Green Up Vermont about people who remember when they were children their Green Up Days and they reminisce about what an impact it had on their lives. We can do this for the next generations and generations to come. And we just need to let these kids know that they're doing the right thing to be motivated to pick up that trash." - Kate Alberghini, Green Up Vermont

So, Leah, this idea that many people grow up in Vermont connected to nature, but at some point, sort of lose that connection, it sounds like that's something that Green Day is trying to counter. Is that right?

Listen to Community News Service's reporter Connor Adams report on Green Up Day from Williston.

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Absolutely. And, you know, the organization itself sponsors a lot of different contests, one of which is a writing contest every year. And I actually got the chance to speak to this year's winner. Her name is Casey Kendall. She's 9, almost 10. And she told me that her poem is inspired by all of the natural things she and her family do in Ryegate, where they live:

Credit Screenshot
Fourth grader Casey Kendall was the 2021 Green Up Vermont writing contest winner.

And you know, it's not just Casey who's into Green Up Day. Her little brother, Elliott, also won a poster contest sponsored by Green Up Vermont and her mom, her grandparents, her dad -- they're all longtime participants as well.

So, Leah, when you and your colleagues were out reporting this weekend, what did you hear, particularly from young people?

Well, we were really struck by the number of young people who were out there participating. A lot of little kids in particular, and whether they were organized in groups or with their families, it was just really cool to see them out there.

Listen to Community News Service reporter Mae Nagusky report on Green Up Day from Burlington.

And one group that I came across was actually behind my old middle school, Albert D. Lawton Middle School. All of them were just sharing how fun it is to be out there, especially during this time of a pandemic.

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Here are Annabelle, Helen and Maddy. They were a part of a Daisy Troop in Essex. They shared some of the reasons they were spending their Saturday picking up trash:

"If you don't pick up trash the Earth won't be healthy." - Annabelle "If we don't pick up trash, the Earth won't be a healthy and strong place." - Helen "We're picking trash up to keep the Earth healthy and strong so it can get more people alive and also, we can also get plastic, paper and a lot of things that are yucky for the Earth so the Earth can’t breathe. And that’s it." - Maddy

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp@TheHenryEpp.

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Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
Brittany Patterson joined Vermont Public in December 2020. Previously, she was an energy and environment reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Ohio Valley ReSource. Prior to that, she covered public lands, the Interior Department and forests for E&E News' ClimateWire, based in Washington, D.C. Brittany also teaches audio storytelling and has taught classes at West Virginia University, Saint Michael's College and the University of Vermont. She holds degrees in journalism from San Jose State University and U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. A native of California, Brittany has fallen in love with Vermont. She enjoys hiking, skiing, baking and cuddling with her rescues, a 95-pound American Bulldog mix named Cooper, and Mila, the most beautiful calico cat you'll ever meet.
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