Chicago River Day, which is Saturday, is like the proverbial box of chocolates: you never know what you're going to get.
Volunteers from three area churches who work on the river cleanup have found all kinds of things.
"Along with a lot of glass and plastic, we've also found tires, a shopping cart, a bowling ball, a fire hose, golf balls (from nearby Highland Park Country Club) and golf clubs and mannequin hands," said Joe Hmieleski, member of Christ United Methodist Church in Deerfield and volunteer site captain. "Once we found a woman's purse, which must have been part of a robbery. Everything was in it except cash and credit cards. We were able to return it to the woman, but it looked pretty bad, like it had been there for some time."
Hmieleski, a wetlands consultant with his own company, JH Wetco, will oversee volunteers from his church and from Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church and St. Gregory's Episcopal Church on the three-hour project. Members of the public are also invited to participate, with the suggestion of bringing gloves and garbage bags.
Chicago River Day is held under the auspices of Friends of the Chicago River, which marks its 35th anniversary this year, and has initiatives spanning the 156-mile Chicago River System and its surrounding watershed. "We focus on a greener river with a healthy habitat, an accessible river that people can use and enjoy, and a river cared for by a broad group of supporters," its website states.
Hmieleski, a former member of the Environmental Commission of Highland Park and a former wetlands specialist with the Lake County Stormwater Management Commission, has led the church's annual river cleanup efforts for more than a decade. This year, the group will be cleaning up the East Fork of the North Branch of the Chicago River, also known as the Skokie River. Participants are directed to meet at 9 a.m. at Target, 2099 Skokie Valley Road, in Highland Park, on the east side of the parking lot.
"These are areas you may see every day or drive right by," Hmieleski said. "(Chicago River Day) allows people in our community to interact with our natural ecosystem in a way that can have tangible results. It's a good opportunity to remove all the trash that can choke the water way and lower water quality."
Since 2003, when Hmieleski first initiated local participation on Chicago River Day, he has noticed improvement.
"We still have trash and debris," he said, "but it is getting less. We have seen a difference in the total amount being taken out of the river."
For church leaders, participation is more than an environmental imperative. It is also one of stewardship.
This is the third year for St. Gregory's members.
"It's important for our youth group to engage productively in the community," said Youth Minister Bret Chandler. "Picking up the trash that is hurting the surrounding environment is part of what we are called to do as a church community."
For more information about local Chicago River Day activities, call Hmieleski at 847-648-1924.