Gusting over fifteen knots, the wind knocks the tops off the distant rollers, creating slivers of silver that sparkle under the hot, August sun. Waves crash wildly against a nearby sandbar, frothing about my legs before racing to shore. A white balloon ribbon rolls in, pausing momentarily at water’s edge before succumbing to the undertow and drifting back to deeper water. I wait, patiently, for the ribbon to ride the next wave. Was it released to commemorate a funeral? A wedding? A birthday? I quickly grab the ribbon and stuff it in a trash bag, remembering that day in 2007 when I stood before the sparkling faces of forty-two fourth graders.
“Oooh, gross,” were the first words spilling out of their mouths as they plugged their noses and eyed the pile of litter I dumped on their classroom floor. Invited by Quincy Elementary School teachers Kathy Nemeth and Donna Altman to speak to their fourth grade classes about the Great Lakes, initially I was stumped as to what to share. And then walking alongside Lake Michigan one morning, I knew.
“Where did all those balloon ribbons come from?” someone asked.
I said nothing, watching the kids survey a floor littered with bottle caps, candy wrappers, straws, and plastic containers. Heaped in the center of the pile was a giant mountain of ribbons tied to remnants of balloons. The mound reminded me of a volcano with thin strips of colorful lava flowing in all directions.
“I never thought of balloons as trash,” a voice piped up.
“Me, either,” exclaimed another.
“Most people don’t think of balloons as trash,” I said. “So what could you do to inform people? To let them know? So that when you visit the beach, there are not so many balloon ribbons littering the sand?”
“Pick up balloons we see on the beach and put them in the trash,” a voice blurted out.
“Not let go of balloons,” several shouted simultaneously.
The class promised to do both.
“What else?” I asked. The faces look puzzled. “Do you think other people consider balloons trash? What if we created a multimedia campaign to educate people? What kinds of things could we do?”
“Make posters to put in the hallway.”
“Do a skit for the school.”
“Pass out flyers in our neighborhoods.”
“Take a field trip to the beach and pick up balloons.”
Like tiny flames in a fire pit of dry twigs, each idea sparked another.
“Create a movie.”
“Yeah! Create a movie!”
“Put signs in the windows of stores selling balloons.”
I wrote furiously on flip charts, racing to keep up, determined to capture every idea.
“We can write letters to the editor.”
“And send them to newspapers in Wisconsin and Illinois,” a little boy said knowingly. “We have to let the people on the other side of the lake know because the wind come out of the west and blow their balloons on our beaches!”
Soon the classroom blackboards were wallpapered with sheets of paper reflecting the creative exuberance of the fourth graders. Orange dots became ballots to mark favorite ideas, to prioritize the campaign’s efforts.
“Every good campaign needs a slogan,” I told them.
Theirs was perfect. “Don’t let it fly or the Great Lakes will cry.”
With passion, intensity, and dogged determination, the students blanketed their community with the message. When they learned two local high schools were planning to release hundreds of balloons at the upcoming graduation ceremonies, they invited the principals to visit their classroom.
A heaping pile of sandy balloon ribbons was stacked in the corner of the classroom, the result of a field trip to Saugatuck State Park. Above the pile, a photograph of a fish skeleton entangled in a long, black balloon ribbon was taped to the wall. Evidence.
The students, like diplomats, pleaded their case, imploring the principals to have the senior classes throw beach balls in the air, release bubbles, or butterflies—anything but balloons.
The orders totaling 450 balloons for the Zeeland, Michigan high schools were cancelled.
In June, eight years later, the fourth graders graduated from those high schools in celebrations that remain balloon-free. Memories of this class, led by two fourth-grade teachers who understood the true meaning of leadership, inspire me to greatness. They were, and will always be, my heroes.
Will you join the campaign, finding other ways to celebrate, honor,
and memorialize important events? Help keep our beaches clean?
Please . . . Don't Let it Fly or the Great Lakes Will Cry!
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