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Green ways to volunteer

By Sara Payne

The Pioneer

In three hours, Jeffrey McCauley and 500 volunteers transformed the Strip District’s riverfront from a chaotic area to a more natural space.

Leah Thill and seven volunteers planned to lug 50 tires off a North Side hill, but finished with a stack of 170 tires.

Without access to nature as a child, Sally Joe Guzik now teaches students about what she didn’t have.

As Pittsburghers are becoming more environmentally aware in what some are calling a green revolution, opportunities are rising that people like Guzik say are not only cleaning up the region, but
crafting the future of the environment for generations to come.

“It makes things seem trendy. We can’t have this movement go away,” said Guzik, Tree Pittsburgh’s community partnerships and volunteer coordinator.

Opportunities to be a green volunteer range from cleaning up illegal dumpsites to pontooning the riverfront, removing debris, to planting trees in city communities and much more. Many of these opportunities are with organizations dependent on volunteers because of their small staffs.

Friends of the Riverfront (, which hosts cleanup efforts to remove trash from the river, rid of the trails of invasive plant species, and plant flower and tree bulbs in order to make the riverfront a closer match to its preindustrial state. McCauley ( can be reached for volunteer inquiries.

Allegheny CleanWays ( gives volunteers a chance to clean up areas that are considered illegal dumpsites. The organization’s work not only helps the environment, but the communities where the dumpsites are,
according to Thill. For those interested in volunteering at Allegheny CleanWays, contact Thill. (

Tree Pittsburgh ( protects and restores Pittsburgh’s urban forest, according to Guzik. The organization plants, weeds, mulches and prunes trees while educating the area about why trees are important and how to take care of them. To learn more about volunteering at Tree Pittsburgh, email Guzik. (

In the summer of 2010, McCauley, now the stewardship coordinator at Friends of the Riverfront, said he was stunned when the largest group of people he has seen at an event overhauled part
of a riverfront trail. McCauley said the volunteers installed benches, raked leaves, planted trees and painted over graffiti. This group’s work along with work done by volunteers over the past 22 years have made, “a complete night and day transformation” to Pittsburgh’s riverfront, according to McCauley.

“People learn a new respect for how hard it is to transform something when they chip in time to do it,” McCauley said.

On a cold day in January, Thill and a group of volunteers set out to remove a dumpsite plaguing the environment of Spring Hill. After starting the project, the group realized there were many more tires dumped than previously calculated. The volunteers lugged 120 more tires up the hill than expected, making it a much safer and healthier environment.

“When we saw all the tires stacked up, it was pretty amazing that in just two or three hours just a few people could lug out that many tires,” said Thill, Allegheny CleanWays projector coordinator. “If we hadn’t done it, they would still be there.”

Tree Pittsburgh partners with Junior Green Corps, which gives African American students a chance to be employed part time through the school year and summer at environmental non-profits, according to Guzik. One student starting out was not interested in working outside in 90-degree heat, but the program still sparked her interest. Now she is a certified tree tender “obsessed” with pruning trees.

“It’s nice because even though they’re teenagers and they can’t make any big decisions by planting trees, they’re impacting their environment for hopefully generations to come,” Guzik said.

McCauley said he thinks this program is a great way to recruit volunteers because they are able to ride a pontoon boat to collect debris from the river side instead of the land along the riverfront.

“A lot of people see how things change over time, but they don’t see people behind the scenes helping that change go along,” McCauley said. “They just see certain stages, but the not the hard work in the middle.”

Thill has always been interested in the environment as she recounted her frustrations with friends littering in the past, but her work at Allegheny CleanWays gave her more of an outlook on why it is important to clean up the dumpsites. She did not understand the consequences of trash staying in the environment. Dumpsites can leech toxins from plastics and other materials into Pittsburgh’s water and soil, but they are also a public safety concern as they can lead to rats or the dumping of hazardous items like needles, according to Thill.

“People get hurt directly, or they can be negatively affected by the crime that is
associated with areas that are heavily dumped on,” Thill said.

Dumping goes beyond the environmental issues because the esteem of the community and the self-esteem of people living in dumpsite areas can be affected, according to Thill. In places such as Homewood, people come from outside the neighborhood to dump trash there because they do not have respect for those living there. Items found at dumpsites include: tires, appliances, mattresses, bottles, needles, glass, construction debris, whole swimming pools, broken toilets, or just about anything, according to Thill. This has a negative impact on the community.

Thill said that when a cleanup effort is made in these areas, it can change the outlook of the people living there.

“They’re amazed that someone is doing something now, instead of making promises for the future,” Thill said. “It really makes people feel that someone does care for them and their situation.”

Tree Pittsburgh promotes volunteer tree planting because the organization has found that trees have a 96 percent survival rate when planted by volunteers, according to Guzik.

Guzik said planting trees is a way to build communities. The organization provides the trees and education to care for the trees at no cost to the communities.

Homewood’s Save Race Street Committee is dedicated to planting more trees on their street in order to decrease crime and violence. In Manchester, tree care events are organized and afterward the community hosts a pot luck at multiple houses followed by residents playing jazz music together, according to Guzik.

“They’re really proud to plant trees and take care of their neighborhood, or just even their block,” Guzik said.

If a community has trouble finding enough volunteers, Tree Pittsburgh will supplement volunteers with the community’s permission.

The organization offers an eight-hour tree-tender program. After the program, volunteers are able to assist with pruning trees in the absence of a certified arborist. 1,200 people in Pittsburgh have completed the program, Guzik said.

Thill and McCauley schedule events when accommodating large groups, but people interested in making a more frequent commitment can volunteer any day of the week.

The 12 trail stewards for the Friends of the Riverfront range from people who are retired to those with full time jobs, according to McCauley. He refers to them as his “super volunteers.”

“They go out and do certain things that I can’t get to, or they tell me when they see a problem, so I can schedule an event to solve that problem,” McCauley said.

Allegheny CleanWays’ Dumpbusters program has a more flexible schedule for volunteers, according to Thill. Dumpbusters works in much smaller groups than when events are scheduled, but this program cleared 110 tons of the 190 tons cleared by the organization last year.

Thill said it is important for people living in Pittsburgh to become involved in environmental issues because they
are in an urban area.

“In Pittsburgh, we have a lot of green spaces because of its typography, and we have a history of abusing that,” Thill said. “I think it’s important to get
a closer look at what’s really going on by volunteering. When you just drive by everyday, you don’t notice the impact.”

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