Chad Pregracke grew up a genuine “river rat,” the nickname given for kids raised on the banks of the Mississippi.
Today, he’s also known as the river’s “garbage man,” for he lives on a barge nine months out of the year, picking up trash that has littered the Mississippi’s muddy waters.
But last week, Pregracke was granted another title: CNN’s 2013 “Hero of the Year.”
For Pregracke isn’t alone in his cleanup efforts. In fact, through his nonprofit, Living Lands & Waters, Pregracke and his 12-person crew have endeavored to make river cleanup fun, recruiting roughly 70,000 volunteers over the last 15 years, holding more than 700 cleanups on 23 different rivers.
All told, the volunteers have extracted more than 7 million pounds of garbage out of the nation’s waterways, and they’ve done it with little more than a big batch of elbow grease.
“The garbage got into the water one piece at a time,” Pregracke said earlier this year. “And that’s the only way it’s going to come out.”
Six years ago, Living Lands & Waters decided to start adding to the rivers as well: in this case, a goal to plant 1 million trees along river shorelines to protect and restore the natural environment. CNN reports the group is already halfway to its goal.
“A lot of people call me a conservationist or an environmentalist, but the thing is I’m no different than anybody else,” Pregracke told the network. “I just want to be known (as) a hardworking American.”
For being named CNN’s Hero of the Year, Pregracke receives $250,000 to continue his work. That is in addition to the $50,000 that he and each of 10 finalists for the award received. Pregracke was chosen as the winner through a five-week public vote on CNN.com.
“I’ll just keep on cleaning up America’s rivers and loving every minute of it,” said Pregracke when he accepted the award.
Other finalists included Dale Beatty, co-founder of Purple Heart Homes, which has helped build or modify homes for dozens of disabled U.S. veterans; Robin Emmons, who ripped up her back yard to plant fresh produce for the needy in Charlotte, N.C.; Laura Stachel, who created a special “solar suitcase” to help health-care workers deliver babies in more than 20 developing countries; and six others.
Pregracke’s Living Lands & Waters has been so successful, in part, because of it efforts to get others involved. The group uses skits, music and mock motivational speeches to get volunteers enthusiastic about picking up trash. Teams also compete to see who can find the “best” garbage.
“We do everything in our power to get people excited about it,” Pregracke told CNN. “We want people to leave feeling good about what they did so they’ll come back.”
Watch a video profile of Pregracke in action below: