One Man’s Dream and 10 Million Pounds of Trash

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“You can’t follow your dreams; you have to lead them. So, my advice is to stop dreaming and start doing. I’m proof that you can accomplish so much more than you think.” 

If Chad Pregracke says he’s going to do something, believe him. He and the organization he created, Living Lands and Waters, have inspired over 120,000 volunteers to remove 12.8-million pounds of garbage from US waterways through cleanups on 25 different rivers in 21 different states. “We’re not just talking little stuff,” he said. “We’re talking about thousands upon thousands of barrels, tires, appliances, sunken boats, cars and all kinds of things.” 

 As the fourth largest river system in the world, the Mississippi is home to countless species. More than half of the country’s birds visit during annual migrations and one-fourth of all fish species live in the river. 

Pregracke grew up along its banks in East Moline, Illinois and watched as the amount of pollution grew. In 1998, at the age of 23, he began picking up trash by himself, piece by piece. He knew it would take an enormous effort to make a significant difference, and he wasn’t afraid to ask the government for help. There was no answer, so he decided it was up to him to lead.  

“It took about four years of people telling me no before I got that one person to say, ‘You know what? I like this, I believe in you and let’s try to make this happen,’” he said. 

Pregracke isn’t a scientist, lobbyist or politician. He is someone who saw a problem and stepped up to do something about it. 

“What I realized is everybody’s a leader, every single one of us,” he said. “We’re leaders of our own lives and we all have the potential to do great things.” 

Since then, his passion has inspired others to take action, becoming the most impactful river cleanup organization in the world. “I got to stand on the stage at the Kennedy Center and share our message in front of a packed house which included four former U.S. Presidents,” he said. “And I’m just an ordinary guy trying to clean up rivers.” 

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of Living Lands and Waters and although much has been accomplished, Pregracke says they have just scratched the surface. “My wife says I’m addicted to progress, which is not a bad thing because the challenge can be overwhelming. But our rivers are our treasures, and we have to take care of them.”  

He has also made his mark on our landscape. Inspired by his wife’s love of trees, Pregracke and his team have planted over 1.4 million trees in yet another grassroots effort to help the environment. 

Pregracke is proof that one person can make a difference, and he believes that best of all, you can, too.  

“If you care about our rivers, streams, lakes, trees,” he said. “Whatever lights your spark, find an organization that fits, and I can guarantee they need your help. Together, there is no limit on what we can accomplish.” 

To learn more about Chad Pregracke’s mission visit livinglandsandwaters.org 

This article is featured in the October 2022 issue of The Growing Bolder Digital Digest.


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