Groups clean up highways in Walworth County

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Kayla Bunge
Sunday, June 27, 2010

Karen Henrickson detests litter.

“It’s really sad, actually, to see all the trash on the side of the road,” she said. “If I threw something out the (car) window, I would have to turn around and pick it up.”

Henrickson this year organized a group of youth volunteers from Immanuel Lutheran Church in Lake Geneva to sponsor a two-mile segment of local highway through the state Adopt-A-Highway program and pick up garbage from the roadside a few times a year.

The group recently ventured onto Highway 120 between Hospital Road and Highway 36 east of Lake Geneva. Henrickson and the teenagers were appalled by the amount of rubbish.

“It was amazing,” she said. “We found this wine bottle, sherry cooking wine, and then we found like 30 bottles of the same wine. I was just shocked that somebody stashed all that out there.

“I thought we would find a bunch of McDonald’s wrappers, but we found more soda cans, water bottles … beer cans and bottles.”

The Adopt-A-Highway program originated in Texas in the mid-1980s after an engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation watched debris blowing from the bed of a pickup truck. Alarmed by the incident and concerned about the increasing cost of picking up litter, he began appealing to local groups to “adopt” a section of highway.

Tens of thousands of groups now sponsor hundreds of thousands of miles of highway in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico through the Adopt-A-Highway program.

The program came to Wisconsin in the early 1990s.

Service clubs, church groups and others take responsibility for litter control on two-mile segments of state highway, and volunteers pick up litter on their segment at least three times a year between April and November.

More than 3,000 groups this year will clean up more than 8,000 miles of state highway, said Adopt-a-Highway coordinator James Merriman.

“The program is excellent,” he said. “We really appreciate the work of our volunteers. They make a big splash.”

The state Department of Transportation in 2007 spent about $7 million to pick up litter around the state. But the Legislature the last few years has reduced its funding. The department in recent years is spending about $3 million.

“Folks don’t want to see litter everywhere,” he said. “People see our state as a fairly green state. They come here to see the lakes, forests. These groups definitely enhance the way our roads look.”

The Delavan Lions Club sponsors the stretch of Highway 50 west of Delavan from County F to Highway 67.

Volunteers spend about an hour out there three times a year—once after the snow melts, once in the summer and once before the snow falls—picking up garbage and finding random items that don’t belong on the roadside.

“We find a lot of dead animals, but we don’t pick any of those up,” said Lions Club member Karen Heine. “We mostly find pop cans, beer bottles and cigarette butts. We found a wallet once. … We found a whole tackle box and a child’s fishing license once, too.”

Volunteers bag up the trash—including debris from car accidents—and leave it along the highway for county crews to pick up.

“It’s a great community service,” Heine said. “Lots of people toot (their car horns) and wave at us. Some people probably think we’re part of some kind of chain gang. But we like it. You leave with a sense of accomplishment.”

The Whitewater Kiwanis Breakfast Club has sponsored the stretch of Highway 12 southeast of Whitewater from County P to Franklin Street for about 10 years.

Volunteers meet at a restaurant in La Grange, split into groups and head out. They spend one or two hours along the highway twice a year—once in spring and once in fall—cleaning up, said Evan Wynn, club president.

“We find a lot of bottles and cans,” he said. “The last time we (had a pick-up day), it was right after they reopened Highway 12 after they repaved it. You could tell where the construction workers had lunch because they left garbage behind.”

The highway cleanup is just one of many community service projects the Kiwanis Club does, but it’s among the most rewarding, Wynn said.

“For me, it gives me a sense of really doing something,” he said. “It’s a good feeling to know you cleaned something up and to be able to see it the next time you drive by.”

Henrickson said the Adopt-A-Highway program already has proven to be a worthwhile experience for the youth at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Lake Geneva.

“It feels good,” she said. “You’re out there with your (reflective) safety vests, picking up trash and people are looking at you. At least you’re doing a good deed.”


Service clubs, church groups, schools, businesses or nonprofit organizations interested in sponsoring a local highway should contact:

-- Tina Hanson, who oversees the program for the region that includes Walworth County, at (262) 548-5903 or tina.hanson@dot.wi.gov.
-- Donna Sanford, who oversees the program for the region that includes Rock County, at (608) 246-3871 or donna.sanford@dot.wi.gov.
More information about the program, including applications, is available here.

Last updated: 1:59 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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