Volunteering for Change

by Christina Marshen

On September 19, 2005, I was driving home from work and got hit by a drunk driver.  I start my story there not to induce sympathy or guilt, but because it is a pivotal piece in why I do what I do now.  After this accident, my whole world changed, as did my level of mobility. At first I spent many years suffering and stuck in a bed, with two windows being my only access to the outside world.  As the years went on and therapy strengthened most of my body, I was left with permanent nerve damage on my left lower limb.  I went from having to be picked up to use the bathroom, to a wheelchair, to a walker, to a cane, and now a walking stick, to maintain balance and help relieve the pain to make it through an entire day. Laying in that bed all those years ago, my mind raced. The wildlife that was outside my window became my only connection to the world I yearned to be in; my love for wildlife photography became an obsession.  Photographing birds from my window made me feel free again.  My love for photography grew the more I was able to walk and explore new areas of our coast.  One day in May of 2016, a friend granted me extended movement. Little did she know just what would become of her kindness; she was moving away from Eastern North Carolina and gifted me her kayak. Never before had I been given such a wonderful gift and I decided from that moment on to give back any way I could.  I pledged to paddle weekly and clean as much of Eastern North Carolina’s river beds and creeks as I could possibly get to, not only because it needed to be done, but because I was driven to take photos that didn’t include the trash we reside along.  I have kept that promise and hope to inspire more to realize what a single human is capable of.

I believe that volunteering in your spare time really shows your love and concern for whatever it is that you choose to do.  Whether it’s serving at a soup kitchen, helping with a fundraiser, learning a new skill for enjoyment, assisting an elderly neighbor, or committing yourself to bettering the environment, you not only help your fellow man but in turn boost your own purpose and meaning in life. What’s better than helping someone feel good about themselves or improving your community?  When you bring a smile to someone’s face or do something positive that needs to be done, it’s almost like experiencing a “Giving High.”  Giving of yourself without expecting anything in return has added value to my own life;  it has put me in touch with like-minded people with similar goals.  So, when there’s a topic that you’re passionate about, that you think about in the quiet moments of your day, then I believe it is your duty as a citizen to take action.  It doesn’t have to be something huge.  Choose something within your ability and start out small.  It will amaze you what you can achieve if you just put yourself out there.

I do not live in the town of Washington.  I drive my children to school daily from Vanceboro and we pass the Estuarium, small creeks, Washington Waterfront, parts of the Neuse River, and Jack’s Creek in Washington many times a day.  For the first few weeks of the 2017 school year, I kept saying “somebody should really do something about all the garbage that’s floating around on the sides of all the waterbeds.”  The problem kept accumulating despite all the Clean Sweeps and River Cleanups that occur quarterly.  After a while, I realized that “that somebody” needed to be me. The condition of Craven and Beaufort County waterways need improvement for several reasons.  It saddens me that we are all used to seeing garbage among wildlife,  that through human negligence we harm animals stuck in our plastics, kill fish from our companies’ dumps, and pollute waterways from our chemicals – not to mention that excess litter is just plain ugly.  All of these things show our blatant disrespect of the planet we live in, but  I want to be able to share with my children a land I can be proud of.  I want to show them that one person can make a difference if they try hard enough.  I want to show my kids and all the other children riding school buses passing these waterways just how dedication to a single cause can really change things.  The only way I know how to effect change is to show them what is right in all our hearts.  That it’s easy to dispose of trash in an actual garbage can.  That we can vote with our forks and opt for better food receptacles at fast food places.  That we can curb our bad habits towards a common positive goal.  That if enough people care and work together that we can solve some of these local problems.

Volunteering can be exhausting – and at times plain ol’ disgusting when it comes to other peoples garbage – but, when an area has been restored back to a normal healthy status, it fills me with pride.  I have not littered in these areas and am not fond of cleaning up used contraceptives, cigarette butts, soda cans, liquor bottles, diapers, clothing, needles, plastic bags and tons of styrofoam, but once the area has been restored its simply beautiful.  When I am on land or in my kayak, I try to choose a 1-2 mile stretch to clean up or I would be out there daily for months.  I prepare with gloves, boots, a grabber and a few recycled bags from local supermarkets.  Some days I am angry at how bad some areas have become.  Other days I smile when I’m able to take photos of the tundra swans, that have migrated to Eastern NC from so far away, without our garbage in the photos.  Or when a majestic Great Blue Heron or the Great Egret land in our waterways to rest and eat, they can do so without a carpet of garbage.  It makes me feel good inside to know that the strangers who walk around the local waterways alone or with pets have a clean safe area to do so without litter being part of the scenery.  To know that the wildlife that lives in and around that creek is now free to just be, without swimming in or getting tangled or digesting our human trash.

The health of the waterways around ENC should be important to all of us.  If we neglect them, not only does the environment and the wildlife suffer but we are polluting the only water that we have.  My children used to believe that when it rained we were receiving new water, but nothing could be farther from the truth.  The water that we have now is the only water we get, and we need to take care of it for the rest of our lives and for generations to come.  When large companies decide to dump their sewage or waste into the ground we all suffer,  all that’s needed is a good rainfall to spread contaminants and garbage everywhere.  The recent storm and flooding proved Mother Nature is in control. But what’s not out of our control is what we do on a small local basis. Imagine what the roadways and the waterways would look like if everyone committed to just picking up five pieces of garbage a week?  Or better yet, if everyone committed to not throwing garbage out of our car windows at all, or bagging up lose trash on our own properties properly.  When you get in a car you are agreeing to all the rules that are necessary to follow to be a good driver, but you are also trusting that everybody else is going to follow the same rules and laws so that everyone remains safe on the road. Why is it different with our refuse?  Can we not all agree to follow the same rules of the one earth that we are left to take care of?  Is it really that difficult to make sure your garbage goes in a trash bag or your cigarette butts get placed in an ashtray or your fast food containers make it into the trash?  With China finally putting their foot down and not accepting any more of the garbage from the United States, we really need to be even more vigilant in our efforts to keep our garbage solely in our landfills.  We will not get a do-over if we screw the earth up past the point of no return, so why not start volunteering to help now?  Even if that just means not littering.

– Christina