story by Brittany Ransom
John Pope has a passion for trash … well, for cleaning it up at least.
The long-time executive director of Keep Van Buren Beautiful (KVBB) has led the way for cleaning up and preventing litter, increasing recycling efforts, and educating others about the importance of caring for the community for the past eight years.
Pope and Andrea Beckman, coordinator of Beautify Fort Smith, are two of 25 “Lodestar” award winners recognized by the Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission.
Pope became involved with Keep Van Buren Beautiful when the program was in its earliest stage and consisted of a few concerned citizens looking for a way to improve the town's appearance and green efforts.
"We met several times to discuss ideas and when it was time to figure out who was going to head up the thing, everyone sat around kind of pointing and looking at each other. I said, 'Well, I'll do it," and that's how I became executive director."
It was not Pope's first time to serve as a community leader. Before "retiring" to Van Buren, Pope resided in California where he worked for AT&T serving primarily in the areas of community, chamber and community relations.
"I was accustomed to working with the community and local groups, so this nothing new to me," said Pope. "I find this type of work very gratifying and enjoy seeing the results."
And the results are easy to see.
Keep Van Buren Beautiful has accomplished much since its inception in 2006, and Pope quickly rattles off what he considers to be the organization's greatest achievements; improved recycling efforts school and city-wide, reduced cigarette litter, and the expansion of the community service worker program for city clean-up.
VAN BUREN SCHOOL PROGRAM
When Pope first began with KVBB, the Van Buren School District didn't have much in the way of a recycling program.
"I asked then Assistant Superintendent Lonnie Myers what types of recycling were being done in the school, and he replied that there were some individual classrooms and schools that operated small recycling programs, but that the district did not have a formal system in place," said Pope. "My response, was, ‘Why not?’"
Pope said the conversation helped get the ball rolling. Myers shared the idea with Superintendent Dr. Merle Dickerson and they discussed a plan. A meeting was then called with several faculty members and district leaders where Pope cited the benefits of having a recycling program. Dickerson gave everyone one order, "Make it happen. It is the right thing to do."
And "make it happen" they did. Pope and Keep Van Buren Beautiful worked in conjunction with the district to establish a recycling program that included supplying cardboard bins to each school, as well as placing outside recycling containers throughout the various campuses. In the four years since the program began, VBSD has collected more than 1.5 million pounds of recycled material.
In addition to the recycling program, Pope and KVBB members regularly speak at Van Buren schools and other schools in the region about the benefits of recycling. Several clubs have become active in programs such as the twice annual clean-ups and the e-waste events, as well.
Word of the schools' successful recycling programs has spread throughout the area. Pope has worked with other districts, including Alma and Cedarville Public Schools, on recycling programs. KVBB is now helping with a county-wide "Recycle Bowl" contest encouraging schools to compete with one another to see who can recycle the most materials.
‘BUTT’ OF JOKES
Pope is also very serious about reducing one of the common forms of litter – cigarette butts. So serious that he took the time to count every cigarette butt along Van Buren's Main Street beginning at the historic train depot, down several blocks to the Crawford County Courthouse.
"In some respects, I am the 'butt' of a lot jokes," laughed Pope. "But in order to receive funding for cigarette urns from Keep America Beautiful, you have to complete a cigarette butt count," said Pope. "When I counted four years ago, there were 1,250 along that several block stretch."
KVBB placed six urns along Main Street, later adding another six to the area.
"Last year when I counted, I found only 250 cigarette butts," said Pope. "While we love to see no cigarette litter, we were thrilled with the tremendous reduction."
Keep Van Buren Beautiful also purchases several hundred cigarette butt "buckets" each year that smokers can carry in their pockets. The buckets can store the litter until the smoker can get to a trash can or ash tray. The group distributes them throughout the community in an effort to curb litter.
COMMUNITY SERVICE PROGRAM
Another accomplishment of KVBB has been the expansion of the community service worker program.
"About four and a half years ago, we approached (District Court) Judge (Steven) Peer to ask about extending the community service worker program to Saturdays to KVBB to help with city clean-up," said Pope.
After the program was approved, the organization began using the first three Saturdays of each month as opportunities for community service workers to assist with city clean-up in targeted areas. Each scheduled Saturday, Pope arrives at 7 a.m. with clipboard in-hand to document hours and attendance.
"Last year the workers gathered 1,250 trash bags. The year before that it was 1,550," said Pope. "All in all, they have collected upwards of 10,000 30-gallon bags of trash off of city streets.”
Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman applauds the program and Pope's role in it.
"One of the first things we did jointly (after Freeman assumed office) was the community service worker program that picks up trash on weekends," said Freeman. "John stays on top to the program and the benefits have been tremendous. Not just the visual impact, but thousands of bags of trash over the years that are out of the streets and out of our drainage system. We purchased the first street sweeper about the same time and it has been a great combination.”
When asked why he works as hard as he does at his "volunteer job," Pope's reply is simple.
"I really enjoy it. I was retired for a year and didn't really care for it," said Pope. "But this, this is rewarding."
On June 13, Pope's many years of hard work in keeping his town "clean and green" will be recognized by Keep Arkansas Beautiful. Pope, along with 24 other community leaders from across the state will be honored as "Lodestars," as the organization celebrates its 25th anniversary, a milestone it is calling its "Greeniversary."
According to the Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission, a lodestar "is someone who serves as an inspiration, model or guide." KAB is recognizing the selected individuals for "guiding their neighborhoods and communities in an effort to keep Arkansas clean, green and free of litter."
Mayor Freeman finds the lodestar honor very fitting for Pope.
"It is a very well deserved honor," said Freeman. "John is a great example of someone stepping up and their passion making a huge impact on their community. He has a passion for the KVVB program and its impact on the community. He takes the results of the program personally and makes sure that it succeeds. Clean up events, promotions for cleanup, E-waste collection, recycling at the schools … John has played a part in all of it."
Beckman has volunteered with Beautify Fort Smith for more than three years, overseeing hundreds of community cleanup events and projects.
“I see the need for this everyday,” Beckman said in her story on the KAB website. “I think the residents of Fort Smith see the positive changes we're making as a good thing and, with our volunteer base increasing, they want to help with those positive changes.”
Beckman helps coordinate area events, including the Arbor Day event with the Fort Smith Public Schools that she mentioned as her favorite.
“We secured a $1,500 grant from the Arkansas Flower and Garden Club and were able to plant 20 young oak trees on three of the school’s campuses,” Beckman said on the KAB website. “We worked with several of the teachers to provide in-class education and a hands-on learning experience planting the trees.”