East Moline native inspires 70,000 volunteers, receives Hero of the Year nomination

Chad Pregracke, founder of Living Lands & Waters in East Moline, Ill., was awarded the title of  CNN Hero of the Year 2013 for his work cleaning rivers across the nation on Nov. 19.
Fondly referred to as “The River’s Garbageman,” Pregracke, 38, has been working diligently to clean and protect the environment for 15 years. As of today, Pregracke with the help of 70,000 volunteers has removed trash and debris from 22 rivers.
“I’m a regular person that saw a problem and wanted to do something about it,” Pregracke said. “I have worked really hard with a lot of people to improve on my mission and accomplish it.”
Pregracke grew up in East Moline and spent time working as a fisherman on the Mississippi River during his summer breaks from school.  While working on the river, he noticed an accumulation of trash polluting the water. When government agencies did not agree to fix the problem, Pregracke decided to do the work himself.
During the summer of 1997, Pregracke received a grant from Alcoa, went out on his boat and cleaned a 35-mile stretch of the Mississippi alone. He sorted through the 45,000 pounds of trash he removed from the river on his parents’ lawn.
Pregracke’s work received positive feedback from the community, and volunteers started to join his cause. In 1998, Pregracke founded Living Lands & Waters to help continue his work.
“I didn’t start this to make an organization,” Pregracke said, “I needed to clean up the river, and starting Living Lands & Waters was just something I had to do to continue to build upon the mission.”
Today, Living Lands & Waters has a full staff with a fleet of equipment. It is the only industrial strength river cleanup organization of its kind.
Amber Pribyl, office manager of Living Lands & Waters, said the crew averages about 70 cleanups a year in 9 states.
CNN has recognized Pregracke’s work by nominating him as one of the top 10 heroes of the year. Pregracke said he is honored by the recognition from his community and CNN.
“It’s certainly a huge honor, and even though the attention is on me, it really should be on the 70,000 volunteers and people I’ve worked with,” Pregracke said. “I’m accepting the honor on behalf of all these people.”
Pregracke enjoys working with volunteers from all over the country, but especially reaches out to college students. He tries to make each event exciting and interesting for the volunteers.
“For every event, we really try to hype it up,” Pregracke said. “We try to have an all-star wrestling type intro for the event. We have DJs and smoke machines, anything that seems like what people would not expect.”
While Pregracke keeps the cleanups light-hearted, he said that a great deal of work still needs to be done.
With no trace of cynicism, Pregracke remains optimistic that people can fix the environment and make a difference.
“Everybody’s part of the problem,” Pregracke said. “But, I’ve seen what people can do and the change that can be. People can mess things up but can also fix them. We’ve taken great strides and are making real progress. I know that change can happen. Sometimes it just takes a long time.”
Pregracke and Pribyl are focusing on a new project for April of this year. Staff and volunteers will work to remove the invasive species, honeysuckle, from Lynwood Park in the Quad Cities.
Pregracke said the work will be difficult but rewarding once volunteers see the results. Volunteer information is available at livinglandsandwaters.org.
Voting for the CNN Hero of the Year is open now at heroes.cnn.com.