Credit: Erika Clarke, CNN
“Chad Pregracke, an Illinois man who has dedicated his life to cleaning the Mississippi River and other U.S. waterways, was named the 2013 CNN Hero of the Year on Tuesday night. Pregracke organizes community cleanups across the country through his nonprofit, Living Lands & Waters. About 70,000 volunteers have pitched in, helping Pregracke collect more than 7 million pounds of trash in the past 15 years.
“The garbage got into the water one piece at a time,” Pregracke said earlier this year. “And that’s the only way it’s going to come out.”
Pregracke was recognized Tuesday night along with the rest of this year’s top 10 CNN Heroes---everyday people doing extraordinary things to help change the world. He was chosen as Hero of the Year through a five-week public vote on CNN.com.
“I’ll just keep on cleaning up America’s rivers and loving every minute of it,” said Pregracke as he accepted the award Tuesday night. For being named CNN Hero of the Year, Pregracke receives $250,000 to continue his work. That is in addition to the $50,000 that each Hero receives for making the top 10.
On Tuesday night, Pregracke pledged to spread some of his Hero of the Year money to the rest of the top 10 Heroes. “I’ve met so many great people today, the other Heroes, and I’m really moved by all their stories and all the things they do around the world. I’m going to give 10 grand to each of them, because they’re awesome.”
Pregracke, 38, grew up in East Moline, Illinois, where the Mississippi River was in his backyard. As a teenager, he worked as a commercial shell diver and began to notice the heaps of debris in the fabled waterway, which supplies drinking water to 18 million people in more than 50 U.S. cities.
“I saw thousands of barrels, thousands of tires, cars, trucks, and tops of school buses. I got sick of seeing it and just wanted to do something about it,” said Pregracke, whom some have called “the river’s garbageman.”
For more than nine months out of the year, Pregracke lives on a barge with members of his 12-person crew. They go around the country with a fleet of boats, and they try to make cleanup fun for the volunteers who show up in each city.
They use skits, music and mock motivational speeches to get the volunteers amped up, and sometimes they even do a little karaoke. Teams also compete to see who can find the “best” garbage. “We do everything in our power to get people excited about it.” Pregracke said. “We want people to leave feeling good about what they did so they’ll come back.”
Close to 90% of what they recover is recycled. Pregracke said the rest gets disposed of properly.
In addition to the river cleanup, Pregracke has launched a floating classroom barge where his staff educates high school students and teachers about the damages of pollution on river ecosystems. In 2007, his nonprofit implemented a program to plant 1 million trees along river shorelines to protect and restore the natural environment. The group is halfway to its goal.
Pregracke says his nonprofit has already held more than 700 cleanups on 23 rivers, but he says he’s just getting started. He views his work as a different kind of service to the country.”
The nonprofit has a very interesting web site at