The sun was out on Sunday, striking in its presence, perhaps because spring has been elusive this season. It was a good day for a bike ride, a walk or a softball game, and it was Earth Day — a day to celebrate the Earth. But for some, the warm and windless morning was instead an opportunity to make a difference in their community. As cars raced down Route 106 in East Norwich and Oyster Bay, a group of eighth- grade boys wearing T-shirts that read, “Life is a journey, not a destination,“ focused on one thing — garbage.
A black umbrella. A discarded yogurt container. Countless plastic bags.
The wooded side of the road was filled with all kinds of garbage, some of it trapped under a cascade of snarled branches, which the boys worked hard to free. The town-owned property is south of James H. Vernon School, which they once attended. Now most travel down Route 106 during the week to reach Oyster Bay High School, a few miles away.
“I kept seeing the garbage when I was on the bus going to school, and I wondered who was going to clean it up,” said Patrick Walsh, 14, of Oyster Bay. “I decided my friends and I should clean it up, because no one else is doing it.”
Most were unaware that it was Earth Day, said Patrick’s mother, Vicki Walsh, a former Oyster Bay-East Norwich PTA president.
But Jack Hardiman, 14, of East Norwich, said he knew what day it was. “It’s important to keep the Earth clean and help out the community,” he said, dropping a can into the big black garbage bag that Walsh held open. “This is something you feel good about doing, and it makes me happy.”
An empty bag of fertilizer. A Jack Martins County Executive sign. More plastic bags.
Vicki Walsh said she wondered why there are clean-ups at Theodore Roosevelt Park Beach, the annual events the Town of Oyster Bay and other nonprofit organizations lead on Earth Day weekend. “There’s not garbage there — it’s here,” she said, holding open the bag once again to allow one of the boys to drop a couple of Poland Spring bottles inside.
The boys didn’t really notice when a car driven by Genella McGrath pulled over to the side of the road. Opening her window, she handed a box of donuts to Walsh. “I applaud this — way to go boys,” she exclaimed, adding that she was a graduate of Oyster Bay High School and a former president of the East Norwich Civic Association. “I saw the boys when I was on my way to Dunkin’ Donuts. What a great thing they’re doing.”
Dirt flew into the air when two boys yanked a big orange Home Depot bucket out from under a pile of dead tree branches, which snapped. Annother boy cautiously carried a bottle of what appeared to be urine. This cleanup clearly was not for the faint at heart.
Ellen O’Neill, who was there to supervise the seven boys with Walsh, said it was important for them to take ownership of the community service. She said she believed the experience would build character. “Doing something like this makes an impact on your life,” she said, adding that she has always participated in community service projects, even in college. “If you volunteer in childhood, you do so as an adult.”
William Iannetta, 14, of Oyster Bay, said he had done beach cleanups in the past, although never on Earth Day. Then he paused to survey the wooded area, which remained filled with all kinds of garbage. “I think that every little bit helps. If we could get a few groups a day to do this, it would slowly clean up the Earth.”
O’Neill said that people living in the area have complained for years about the garbage, but most didn’t know who to complain to. She has never seen anyone cleaning the area. “And from what I’m seeing today,” she said, “I’d say no one ever does.”
Walsh grew up in Queens, where, she said, everyone expected to see garbage. “I always say, doesn’t it bother people here to see this?” she said. “You drive up to this beautiful hamlet and this is what you see — garbage.”
A tire. Some beer bottles and even more plastic bags.
The boys were getting closer to the strip mall where there’s a Stop & Shop. They had been hard at work for nearly two hours. But none seemed to notice.
“You can sit here and keep complaining about it or do something,” Walsh said. “Look, there’s a trail that goes to Vernon. How cool would it be if it looked nice?”