SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — South Orange’s River Day, the annual community gathering for cleanup of the Rahway River and increasing community awareness about environmental issues, is set for Sunday, May 7, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the duck pond off Mead Street, near the intersection of N. Ridgewood Road and Meadowbrook Lane, in South Orange. The event includes new features this year, such as local middle school student presentations, a Lenape Nation traditional welcome and an opportunity for all attendees to take part in a large-scale art piece.
Now in its seventh year, River Day is the brainchild of South Orange Trustee Walter Clarke, South Orange Environmental Commission Chairman James McGowan and the members of the South Orange Environmental Commission, who wanted to create an event that would raise awareness and provide education about the effects of pollution in the local community.
The South Orange government established the Environmental Commission to protect and restore the quality of the village’s air, water and open space. These life-supporting elements link people to the larger community of species that together form the watershed of the East Branch of the Rahway River. Through programs, publications, activities and in-governmental actions, the commission seeks to create real world change that makes sustainability a part of the South Orange community’s daily life.
The Environmental Commission is composed of seven citizen volunteers, two alternates and one liaison to the Board of Trustees. It also oversees the Green Team, which is unlimited in membership and open to all residents who wish to pursue projects affecting the environment and quality of life. The commission can propose new laws and guidelines, or motions to amend existing ones, to the Board of Trustees, and has the authority to conduct research into the uses of land within the municipality, and may sponsor events and projects, submit grant applications, coordinate with donors and other bodies, and prepare maps, plans, books and pamphlets.
“River Day is pretty much my baby. Jim McGowan and I and the South Orange Environmental Commission have been working on it for several years and we started it back in 2011. Main Street South Orange had a river cleanup, but they are the business improvement entity, and they were limited people with limited time, so they approached the commission and asked if we would consider taking it over,” Clarke said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record.
“At that point, we thought we might get 20 kids from Seton Hall and we talked it over with the commission and saw we had an opportunity to do something bigger and grander. At the time South Orange didn’t have any sort of green festival, and we didn’t want to compete with Maplewood’s ‘Green Day,’ so we decided: Let’s have an environmental day and education for the community.
“We realized river cleanup could be our thing so we wanted to turn it into more of a festival, we branded and promoted it and it has grown pretty organically,” Clarke continued. “Every year we have grown in the number of volunteers and vendors that come out, as well as the amount of trash we are able to pick up. Two years ago, we picked up more than two tons of trash. We get hundreds of volunteers and sometimes I get complaints that there is no more trash for people to pick up.”
The trash collected during River Day is placed in trucks provided by the South Orange Department of Public Works, and the amount of trash is measured by how many trucks are filled throughout the day.
“It both makes you feel really good that you are cleaning up the pollution, but makes you feel bad when you see how much trash is in the river,” Clarke said. “It’s good to know that it is not going into our rivers and washing up on our oceans and staying there forever.”
McGowan, who serves as the chairman of the South Orange Environmental Commission, is hopeful that, in addition to cleaning up the river, the community will also use River Day as an opportunity to take more ownership of the local ecosystem to prevent future pollution.
“Taking the trash out of the river is one thing, but stopping people from throwing it out is another. It’s an ecological address for our town, and many may know their street address but do they know their ecological address? People forget their body is made up of water but think nothing of the pollution of the water that is around them,” McGowan said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “We want South Orange residents to build awareness of their ecosystem and for the water that makes up their ecosystem. Anything that goes on the street or the sidewalks will go into the storm drain and end up in the water: cigarette butts, dog poop, all the everyday things we don’t stop to think about before we toss it outside.”
McGowan is especially excited about the opportunity that local students have had to explore the different ways their carbon footprint has contributed to the environment over the years as a result of a grant received to develop educational curriculum centered on local ecology.
“Three or so years ago we were able to win a 10K grant from Sustainable New Jersey for river education, and with the grant we were able to buy boots and testing kits. Now they are able to get South Orange Middle School students in the river during the middle of the day and they’re getting measurable, testable data. They have this asset right next to their school that they are able to enhance the science curriculum in using it,” he said. “The kids doing river curriculum have a different kind of ownership over the river and the interconnectedness of things in nature.”
Many of the students from South Orange Middle School utilizing the river education will be presenting their findings at River Day, including several students from seventh-grade science teacher Anthony Cicenia’s class.
“About five years ago, I wanted to do something outside of my classroom, and at the time I had James McGowan’s son in my class, and he pitched an idea about taking the kids to the river. We got a grant through Sustainable Jersey, got a guest speaker, an environmental watershed ambassador, to come in from Union County AmeriCorps, and the other two middle school science teachers also got involved with putting the curriculum together,” Cicenia said in a recent interview with the News-Record. “The kids through their own inquiry built projects from the fieldwork projects. They have presented at field day, created public service announcements for the community, given speeches at town hall, put together photo catalogs of their findings, documented in journals about their experiences in the river, and many other projects.”
Cicenia said that between 60 to 150 students in the seventh-grade science classes will be presenting at River Day, and the district has just received another $10,000 grant from Sustainable Jersey and PSE&G to expand the river curriculum to both Maplewood Middle School and Columbia High School.
In addition to cleaning up the river, perusing student presentations and checking out various vendors that will be in attendance, River Day attendees will also have the opportunity to be an artist for the day by participating in a piece of art developed by South Orange native and business owner Denise Hayden, who owns the store Funky Fun Art.
Hayden said the piece will be created on plywood and half will be painted, and the other half will be plastic removed from the river during the cleanup. The side with paint will have the word “Leaves” and the side with the plastic debris will have the words “Never Leaves,” in an effort to create a visual display of how much trash is collected and the fact that because plastic is not biodegradable, but a permanent fixture in the environment.
“This is my first time doing recycled artwork, and the inspiration is that plastic never leaves once it’s here,” Hayden said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “The intention is that hopefully it will be a pretty permanent display that they can move around to different spots in the community to create greater awareness.”
Participants in the river cleanup are encouraged to wear waterproof boots, old sneakers or other types of footwear, but not flip-flops, sandals or open-toed shoes. Filling out a waiver form in advance and bringing it on the day of the event will shorten the wait at the check-in table. Forms can be found at http://www.southorange.org/522/River-Day.
Individuals and groups interested in exhibiting or taking part in River Day should contact the environmental commission via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.