In tiny Occoquan, Virginia, located just minutes away from bustling Interstate 95 in Prince William County, Germán and Renate Vanegas anticipate their upcoming fall Occoquan River cleanup with a concern that many other small nonprofits only ever dream of: they may have too many volunteers.
At a time when many popular environmental initiatives — such as minimizing backyard fertilizer use and implementing “smart growth” development — target white, middle-class residents, the family-run Friends of the Occoquan (FOTO) has instead directed its efforts toward the Hispanic community: a fast-growing segment of the Bay region's population that's often overlooked by environmental groups.
Using a combination of outreach, education and on-the-ground conservation, FOTO has successfully engaged Spanish-speaking residents throughout Northern Virginia in protecting their local river and becoming stewards of the Chesapeake Bay.
FOTO's work is concentrated on the Occoquan River, which splits Fairfax and Prince William counties and flows into the Potomac River.
“When we first moved here about seventeen or eighteen years ago, the river was so polluted,” said Renate. “We began cleaning up the small area in front of our property. About four years ago, we decided to get some help.”
“Some help” came in the form of about 100 community volunteers, who spent one Saturday removing trash from the banks of the river at four local parks. FOTO has since hosted two cleanups per year, attracting hundreds of volunteers to remove bicycles, mattresses, appliances, dozens of tires and several tons of debris from the river, which supplies drinking water to the area's growing population.
FOTO began concentrating on the Hispanic community after the Vanegases met with local park rangers, who had observed many Hispanic families leaving their trash on the ground. When the rangers would ask the families to pick up their trash, they found that many did not understand English.
It's not that Hispanic residents do not care about the environment, explains Renate, but that environmental awareness is not a part of many Hispanic cultures.
To help the local Spanish-speaking community understand the importance of picking up trash, FOTO created and installed bilingual signs at parks in the Occoquan River watershed. “NO LITTERING: Drains to River / NO BOTE BASURA: Va al Rio,” the signs read, with the international “no” symbol of a circle with a red slash over a picture of a person throwing trash into the water.
FOTO has also reached out to the area's Hispanic youths by speaking at local middle and high schools. The Vanegases hope that young people will grow up to respect the Occoquan River if they learn about its history, geography and importance to Northern Virginia's residents.
FOTO's outreach and education efforts have been met with measurable success. At their last cleanup, the Vanegases estimated that about 80 percent of the volunteers were Hispanic. Many of them were the same students the Vanegases spoke to at the local schools.
Last year, FOTO completed one of its largest projects to date when it helped produce a bilingual education video that teaches viewers about the link between human actions and the health of the Occoquan River and the Chesapeake Bay. “Saving Our Watersheds: Beyond the Occoquan,” has been shown on public access channels throughout Northern Virginia. FOTO is now working with other local networks so more people can learn about the importance of protecting the river.
The work has been difficult at times. But FOTO has managed to connect with a large and important part of the Bay watershed's population that may otherwise have been neglected.
As they prepare for October's cleanup — and the potential of having more volunteers than trash to pick up — the Vanegases look back on their mobilization efforts with enthusiasm.
“One thing we have learned over the years is that you have to be persistent,” said Germán.
“Yes,” Renate added with a smile. “Persistence is key.”