In San Miguel, much of the community’s lives revolve around the Pacora River. Turning on a faucet means getting water directly from the river. After a heavy rain, which occurs often, the water can turn off for a day or even up to ten days. Then, most of the community collects their water directly from the Pacora River in buckets or water bottles. Maintaining a clean, trash-free river is essential to keeping the community healthy and happy. Holding a Rio Clean Up event creates a stronger community, promotes a healthy environment, and challenges people to think twice before dumping trash near or around the river. As we found out, it also can create the greatest day we have had with the San Miguel kids-ever!
While our first Rio Clean up was successful, there were definitely areas where improvement was necessary. Because promotion happened on a much smaller scale, the first clean up involved a little bit of hustling on the day of the even by getting children who we saw around the community encouraging them as best we could to participate. The kids had fun, but there was little motivation to continue cleaning up after a certain point. So Heather and I decided that the next Rio Clean Up needed to be bigger, better, which obviously meant including candy, stickers, and free food.
Planning events in rural Panama is unlike regular event planning. There are no formal invitations or RSVP’S or any real way to predict the number of attendees. Promotion is key. So the first thing we had to do was make a huge, bright sign to help promote our second Rio Clean Up. I decided the best way to create a sign was by upcycling an old aquarium lining (an underwater scene-perfect!), meaning we didn’t have to use anything to buy the sign and were able to recycle what had pretty much become trash on the side of the yard-sustainable and time efficient! But the sign was only the first step for promoting the Rio Clean Up. Up to four days before the Rio Clean Up, a couple of other interns and myself set out for the town with a bag of candy and stickers, becoming magnets for the kids of San Miguel. While passing out the candy and stickers, we let them know the specifics of the event and told them to tell their friends. And Oh! The word was passed around quickly.
Between getting shirts, prizes, and food, prepping took a couple of days. Heather decided that we should make shirts for the interns who were working the event (Heather, Jamie, Lillian, Julie, and I), and for the first ten kids who showed up. We made shirts out of tape and spray paint. It was simple, quick, looked awesome, and wearing the shirts around was a great way to promote even more on the day of the event. As far as food goes, without knowing exactly how many kids or adults would show up, we decided that the best way to do breakfast was make breakfast burritos with potatoes. We got about 80 eggs, 60 tortillas, 4 blocks of cheese, 25 potatoes, and a ton of fresh tomatoes, onions, and cilantro for Lillian (community outreach director) to make her famous pico de gallo in mass amounts.
After planning for over a week, the event finally happened! We met at the concha, with our I <3 El Rio shirts, smiles, candy, gloves, and trash bags. We initially got about 15 kids to show up on time and 2 men who got in the deep crevices under the bridge (awesome!). As the kids started cleaning up with the rest of the group, Lillian and I went home to start breakfast. As soon as we started, the clean up group had about doubled, and we had about 30 kids show up. It turned out to be a lot like a birthday party for the river, and what kid doesn’t like a good birthday party? We decorated our yard with balloons and fun colorful signs, set up a huge bowl of candy, endless amount of juice and water, and of course, breakfast burritos. The kids were having a blast, stuffing their pockets with our 5 pound bag of candy, and trying to win prizes by getting the most amount of trash. The day could not have gone more perfectly! After everyone reconvened at our house, filled up on breakfast burritos and pounds of pico de gallo, we passed out awesome prizes (water guns, pens, balloons, silly puddy, water Frisbees) and took a couple of group pictures. And then came the real fun. One of the boys, Ruben, said “Now that the river is clean and beautiful, let’s go swim in it!”. It only took one person to scream “VAMOS AL RIO!” and we were all off running to jump in the river, where we got endlessly splashed, had kids hanging on our shoulders like monkeys, jumped off rocks, and were tortured (in the most friendly way) with water guns.
The day could not have gone better. By improving the promotion of River Clean Up better, and offering incentives to pick up trash, the river and San Miguel in general looked beautiful after. We were able to fill about 25 bags of trash, while having a blast at the same time, interns and kids alike. Working harder on this Rio Clean Up meant a cleaner Rio Pacora and also meant selling to the kids of San Miguel that taking care of the environment is fun and has a tremendous payoff. Incredible!