Ten years ago, Chad Pregracke was named CNN Hero of the Year. Now, the tireless East Moline native is a different kind of hero.

The international conservation group Rivers are Life is releasing a new film online on Pregracke’s 25-year-old organization, Living Lands & Waters, and its Alternative Spring Break. That 12-year-old program takes place on “The Floating Classroom” barge, where students from across the country converge in Memphis, Tenn., to clean up trash along the Mississippi River and learn about the damages of pollution to the ecosystem. 

East Moline native Chad Pregracke founded Living Lands & Waters in 1998.

This program is chronicled in the 16-minute video presented by Rivers are Life called “Study Aboard,” which is set to premiere Friday ahead of World Cleanup Day on Saturday, Sept. 16. You can watch the trailer here, where the full film will also be available on the 15th.

Rivers are Life works worldwide to inspire action to improve, protect and preserve them. “By revealing the beauty and wonder of these waterways and how they impact communities, we hope to raise awareness of the necessity to treat rivers as the valuable resources they are,” its website says.

As a part of the mission to inspire action and raise awareness, the group is committed to supporting 1,000 projects positively impacting these vital ecosystems. This is the 12th river hero film they’ve done so far.

“By highlighting the efforts of these River Heroes and the projects they have undertaken, we seek to raise awareness of water pollution and the commitment to solve the problem at its source upstream,” its site says.

Pregracke founded Living Lands and Waters (LL&W) in 1998 with the philosophy that each person can make a difference in their community through hard work and dedication.

Since the organization’s inception, it’s led many innovative projects to combat waste in America’s waterways. One of the most impactful is the Alternative Spring Break program, which invites college students to help clean up the waterways of McKellar Lake in Memphis, which feeds into the Mississippi River.

The barge hosts 60 students for each week-long session. Pregracke, with education facilitator Mike “Coach” Coyne-Logan and communication specialist Callie Schaser, leads the exciting and engaging experience that’s designed to be just as entertaining as a vacation.

The Alternative Spring Break program has served 2,228 college students from across the country since it started in 2011.

The creeks that flow through Tennessee’s cities carry litter into McKellar Lake, which feeds into the Mississippi River. LL&W chose this location for its student program to collect as much trash and plastic pollution as possible before it enters the continent’s second-largest river, which provides drinking water to 18 million people and is home to more than 120 species of fish. 

The Floating Classroom offers education to help people change their view of the environment in the long-term, and originally started with teacher workshops, serving 1,200 teachers from 10 states, Pregracke said Thursday.

The teachers wanted students to be able to get on a barge, so LL&W built a new one 12 years ago, and over 24,000 students have been on that barge, he said.

“In conjunction with our cleanups, we do educational workshops,” he said. Schaser was on a Floating Classroom in Cincinnati on Thursday working with 5th-grade students. Typically, they serve high school juniors and seniors.

They’re usually on the barge for a five-hour field trip, with samples of garbage that has been removed from rivers.

Students removing garbage from Lake McKellar in Memphis during the spring break program.

“The students, they think it’s one of the coolest places they’ve been,” Pregracke said, noting it’s a strong message that students remember.

“You get kids on a barge, they’re doing a cleanup, they’re in a really cool classroom, focused on clean water and the importance to them,” he said. “We believe we have really good educators working on that.”

The teachers choose from three different curricula to use in the classroom before the barge trip, Pregracke said.

Began in 2011

The Alternative Spring Break Program (started in 2011) run by LL&W communications specialist Callie Schaser, is held for college students three weeks every March on Lake McKellar in Memphis.

Callie Schaser of LL&W, who runs the spring break program, speaking from Cincinnati on Sept. 14, 2023 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

The program stemmed from Pregracke speaking at a Baptist college in Kentucky at the end of a spring break, where he encouraged students to volunteer on a barge, and many showed up in Owensboro, Ky., two weeks later.

“I thought if this could work here, a lot of other people might be interested,” he said. “It’s one of the best programs that we have.”

They have up to 150 students take part each March from across the country, Schaser said. In three separate groups each week, they come out and do cleanups on the shores Monday to Thursday, from about 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., with a lunch break and education.

“It’s their alternative spring break – so instead of going on vacations, they come and pick up trash,” she said Thursday, noting they’re also able to see downtown Memphis during the week. The students also stay close to the National Civil Rights Museum.

This past March, they were able to clean up 80,000 pounds of trash (including plastic bottles and cans), Schaser said.

Students picking up trash on the shores of Lake McKellar in Memphis, Tenn., which feeds into the Mississippi River.

“We’ve worked with probably over 100 colleges over the years, and bring in about 60 students each week,” she said, including University of Iowa and Illinois State.

They chose Memphis to focus on because that city needs a lot of work, Pregracke said. “It’s safe harbor, meaning it’s on a backwater where we work, not exposed out on the river. It’s a really big backwater and a concentrated area where we can get a lot. It needs that sort of boost of people cleaning up. If we don’t do it, nobody does.”

“It’s a strategic spot,” he said, noting they also have done the spring break program in St. Louis and Louisville. “This just seems to be a great spot. It’s where we winter our barges, and it’s a shipyard. The gentleman that runs it is on our board, so a lot of reasons.”

A perfect reflection

The 16-minute Rivers are Life video couldn’t have captured the LL&W program better, Pregracke said.

“They did a great job and their timing and what they put together, I was super moved by it,” he said. “It’s an uplifting time for our crew, that lives on the barge. It’s the positivity and being around all of those extremely intelligent students, it’s a great thing and a great time of year to be there.”

Living Lands & Waters got this mock boom box from QC radio station KIIK-FM.

Rivers are Life reached out to LL&W, part of featuring 1,000 different river heroes nationwide, Schaser said. She praised their commitment to also protect rivers, as LL&W does.

Since Alternative Spring Break started, it’s served 2,228 students and removed over 1.5 million pounds of trash. LL&W as a whole since 1998 has removed 13.4 million pounds of garbage, working with 126,000 volunteers in 25 rivers across 21 states.

LL&W expects more interest from students to do the spring break once the film is released.

“They did a really good job, showing kids smiling,” Schaser said. “We have music playing the whole time. We have a DJ that goes through. It is spring break, so we want to make it a fun time. It brings our energy out as well. Instead of going on a trip to Florida, it’s really cool the students choose to come here.”

LL&W also has gotten crew members from the program, she said. For more information on the nonprofit, visit its website HERE.