Volunteers from Earth Keepers, a environmental organization at Eastern Mennonite University, helped with the annual Blacks Run Clean-Up Day. (Photos courtesy of Earth Keepers)

Earth Keepers pitch in during Blacks Run and Downtown Clean-Up Day

Henry Richardson stopped by the Harrisonburg Farmers Market Saturday morning with the intent of purchasing a few treats.

But as the 22-year-old James Madison University student was browsing, he spied a large crowd across the street at the Ice House complex on South Liberty Street. He walked over to find about 600 people preparing to pick up litter as part of the annual Blacks Run and Downtown Clean Up Day.

Accumulated trash in Blacks Run collected by the EMU volunteers.

Richardson decided to pitch in.

 “We need to help out in every little way we can to help stop the deterioration of our environment,” said Richardson, who was helping clean up Hillandale Park. “It was something I could do to benefit the community.”

In its 21st year, the clean up targets the stream and areas around it.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has declared Blacks Run, along with many of the waterways in the Shenandoah River Watershed, to be impaired because of the presence of E. coli and fecal matter.

Each year, local residents pick up several tons of trash during a two-hour period for the event. In 2017, 516 volunteers collected 3.24 tons of refuse.

“I’m amazed every year that, in a short period of time, we can clean up 2 to 3 tons of trash,” said Wes Runion, an environmental specialist with the city. “I’m also amazed that we have that much trash.”

Runion has helped out in three previous cleanups. This year, he helped organize the entire day.

“It gives the community a way to volunteer and contribute to the overall sustainability of Blacks Run and the city of Harrisonburg,” Runion said. “It’s a great way to clean up our local water way, and ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.”

This year, 560 people preregistered, while another 100 or so added to the total as part of the walk-up crowd. Runion said the 2018 event may have broken the previous record of about 650 volunteers.

Either way, he’s grateful for the turnout.

“I had to go buy more supplies,” Runion said.

The Earth Keepers volunteer group included (from left) Audrey Hershberger, Matt Troyer, Jack Hummel, Emma Yoder, Andy King and Tessa Waidelich.

Leons Kabongo led a team of about a dozen people from Our Community Place, a Harrisonburg nonprofit focuses mainly on helping homeless and other disadvantaged people. Kabongo, OCP’s activities and programming coordinator, said the organization emphasizes giving back.

“We care about the environment … the little ducks floating down the stream,” said Kabongo, whose group targeted East Rock, East Gay and East Wolfe streets.

Harrisonburg resident Andy King, a 20-year-old Eastern Mennonite University student, helped clean up with a group of students involved in Earth Keepers, a campus environmental organization.

“We feel like it’s our responsibility to help keep the environment clean,” said King, who helped gather trash in the Devon Lane area. “[The environment] gives us a lot and we need to give back to it.”

The trash collected from the event will be taken to the landfill to be weighed and then disposed of properly. Organizers plan to release the amount collected later this week.

This article was published in the April 16, 2018, Daily News-Record.