It’s one thing to read and learn about how much trash there is polluting the world’s waterways.

It’s quite another to strap on a life jacket, climb in a boat and go out to drag said trash out of your hometown river and climb up its riverbanks to get even more.

About 40 students from Washington Middle School’s Jay Team who did just that two weeks ago a couple of days ahead of the Washington River Festival and Cleanup, say their eyes have been opened in a way they otherwise never could have.

Many of the students said they had never given much thought to the Missouri River before, either environmentally or historically, but this unprecedented field trip with members of Missouri River Relief gave them a new perspective.

“It was more than just an assignment, because you felt like you were making a difference, and it was fun to do with friends,” said McKenzie Dohm, an eighth-grade member of the WMS Jay Team.

For many of the WMS students, this was their first time on the river, and it was memorable. But the students admit they initially weren’t all that excited to be going.

“I thought it would be boring . . . picking up trash,” said Isaiah Devore.

“Most people think it’s pretty lame going to the river and picking up trash, but it’s really not,” said Ryann Thiemann. “It was a fun time. You get to hang out with your friends, and at the same time you get to do something good to give back.”

Making the field trip possible took quite a bit of time and effort, said Stephanie Virgen, a WMS teacher for seventh- and eighth-grade gifted and ELA classes. There was more involved than just getting parents to sign a permission slip since students were going to be on the river on boats, she said.

All of the students wore life jackets while they were out on the river and cleaning up the trash. They were divided into groups of eight to 10 students in each boat, with teachers and other adult volunteers.

Everyone wore gloves to pick up the trash, said Virgen.

What They Found

The items found in the river and on its banks surprised the students. There were big things, like tires, propane tanks and TVs, and small things like Styrofoam cups and several glass bottles with messages inside — which all agreed was a neat experience.

“They opened the bottles to see where the notes were from, and that was kind of like a little present,” said Virgen, noting the boat crew kept all of the messages.

Most of what the students found was upsetting to them though, and not just because of the types of trash, but also the amount of it — six tires and 20 bags of trash. (Even more trash was collected the day of the river cleanup and festival.)

“It’s pretty upsetting how little people care,” one student remarked.

“We found stuff that I didn’t think we’d find, like propane tanks and TVs,” said Adonis LaBeaume. “It’s kind of crazy to think, why. What’s the point of throwing that in there? It’s hurting the environment.”

“We saw a tire floating down the river. That’s weird. To me, I think, ‘Who throws a tire in the river?’ ” said Josh Adrian, when he spoke to a WMS technology class about the experience.

“It took three people to pull (the tire) out,” added Thiemann, who also spoke to the technology students.

“They had to catch it first, because the current was taking it,” said Josh.

The students found even more trash on the riverbanks. Many of the items found were potentially hazardous to the environment, items with oil or chemicals in them, or just things that can break down and be mistaken for food by fish and marine life.

“We found a lot of Styrofoam, which is little, little, tiny beads and they last forever,” Adrian told the technology class he visited. “They do not decompose. Well, they do eventually, but it takes many, many years. And it’s poisonous. And there’s a catfish swimming up, ‘Oh, look, there’s Styrofoam. I’m going to eat it,’ and it gets stuck in its digestive system, and it dies.”

In some ways, though, the students were excited by what they found.

“I thought it was a lot of fun because I thought I would just find old, empty bottles, but I found a bunch of cool stuff,” said Quinten Yeary. “I found half of a fishing pole, a mini comb, a bucket . . . ”

The students spent about one hour collecting trash, and they were surprised a little by how tiring the work was.

Put It in Perspective

The Missouri River Relief organizers who took students out on the boats to collect the trash talked to them about how the trash breaks down to pollute and poison the water and fish. They also talked about the river, its features and history.

“The captains would stop and provide education about the river and polluting the river, what it does. They were really instructive for the kids,” said Virgen. “So that was pretty interesting for the kids too, because right as we were experiencing it, they were pointing out features along the shore — ‘Do you know why that’s there?’ ‘Do you know why this happens?’ ‘Do you know that this happens?’

“(The students) were noticing things they never would have otherwise, and now they have that historical backdrop or that environmental backdrop, and every time they go by the river, they’re going to think about that,” Virgen added.

Even students who are members of the WMS Environmental Club said they learned a lot of things on the field trip that they didn’t know.

Organizers with Missouri River Relief told Virgen they were impressed by the WMS students and how they cared, not just about their community, but the environment in general.

“That was very inspiring for me as a teacher. It made me feel very proud of my students,” Virgen remarked.

The students said the river cleanup field trip was inspiring.

“It definitely makes you feel good about yourself and want to help the community more,” said Caitlyn Vodnansky. “I wasn’t all that involved before, but I definitely want to help.”

“I think it’s a great opportunity . . . for a field trip because we all had a lot of fun, but we were making a difference along with that,” one student commented.