Community Spotlights

Volunteer Spotlight: Allen Rue Love Your Park Solo

by Sara Hirschler on November 24, 2020

Fairmount Park Conservancy launched the Love Your Park Solo Cleanup campaign this past summer. The program was designed to engage individual volunteers during the pandemic, which had caused cancelled group cleanups, budget cuts for Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, and a sharp increase in park usage and therefore litter.

Volunteers signed up to help clean litter from the parks and could opt in to receive a free clean up kit in the mail from the Conservancy with trash bags, gloves, a mask, instructions, and in some cases a trash grabber. The idea was inspired by our friends at TTF Watershed Partnership who started distributing clean up kits during Love Your Park Week in May.

To date, 564 participants signed up for the program, 431 kits have been distributed and 617 volunteer hours have been recorded through the GivePulse app that helps track our progress. Many volunteers have shared their experiences on social media and have become very engaged with the program, and one volunteer in particular, Allen Rue, is highlighted for this blog post for his incredible commitment to Love Your Park Solo. Allen has logged 105 hours (as of 11/24) and shares about how the program has also helped him along the way.

Please tell us about yourself.

My name is Allen. I’m a 44-year old former runner and native Philadelphian. I have been fortunate to be able to travel to many places in the world. I have gotten sick with a condition called gastroparesis. There’s no cure of course, but it can get better on its own. Through all my trials in western and eastern medicine, the best thing that seems to help me and my nearly constant nausea is standing up and walking around. For a long time I was listening to audiobooks while I walked. It was distracting and a little rewarding. While fiction and non-fiction is interesting, at the end of the day, it is more of distraction than having a purpose.

Tell us about your relationship with Philly’s parks before getting involved with Love Your Park Solo.

I spent a lot of time at our parks walking, trying to keep my mind off my nausea. I particularly like Belmont Plateau, Martin Luther King Drive, and the Chamounix area near the Trolley Trail and the Chamounix Equestrian Center. I used to run cross-country at Belmont Plateau in high school. I used to train for the Broad Street Run, Jefferson Distance Run, and Philadelphia Marathon on MLK Drive and Forbidden Drive.

I started rollerblading about one year ago, after maybe 20 years, because I found it helps with my chronic pelvic floor pain. It is one of the best holistic tools to help with my problem. I found myself picking up sticks and twigs off the ground on the Schuylkill Banks, especially after a heavy rain. It was hard enough to skate with my limited balance and energy, but I thought it was a double win to clean off the trail for other users and build my strength up. I could only skate for about 10 to 20 minutes a day at first. I set an alarm to keep me honest to put in the time. It became easier for me to accomplish that goal when I started cleaning the trail. Having a secondary goal surprisingly made the skating more worthwhile and enjoyable. I was cleaning sticks, twigs, and anything except dog poop on my self-made “beginner course.” I did not think about it at the time, but it was the infancy of my Love Your Park work.

How did you hear about Love Your Park Solo? What was your initial reaction? Did you expect to end up participating as much as you did?

I may have originally heard of the Love Your Park program from the Broad Street Run or the Bicycle Coalition. I have been a computer programmer during much of my working career and a lot of that time is alone time solving puzzles. With my gastroparesis and other indirectly related health issues, I wanted something to do to contribute to our society. I have worked since I was 15 years old, starting as a dishwasher at a Boy Scout summer camp.

My initial reaction to the program was cool, you want to give me the tools to try this out? I’m in. What do I have to lose? I got my free volunteer gloves, grabber, and a couple trash bags. I realized I was working my upper and lower body while working. Also, I was distracted. Walking can get boring and depressing if you go into sad thoughts. I have chronic pain and nausea to contend with. When you are looking for litter, it kind of keeps you in the present moment. Sometimes people pass and thank you. It feels really good to be recognized by strangers. The ones that say thank you are the kind you would probably want to meet.

I had no expectations on how much I would enjoy cleaning up litter. I have also done a lot of solo sports like running. I never needed an objective. However, walking can get boring. Adding a bag and a grabber changes the whole walking game for the better. Additionally, I am at a place in my life where I am fortunate enough to have the time and strength to do this litter cleanup. Sometimes when I have health flare-ups they knock me off course. Also, I feel pretty safe on MLK Drive. As long as the road is closed to traffic, I see myself keeping fit and active making our space there safer and cleaner for all.

What has your experience been like overall with Love Your Park Solo? What has it opened up for you?

Love Your Park Solo has given me some genuine purpose in my day. More people have thanked me for my service volunteering than my whole 20 years in information technology. Some of the same people thank me over and over again. It’s nice to feel supported in what I’m doing, even by relative strangers. Society is a tough place right now and I like to think what I am doing helps people decompress a little better by keeping nature litter free as it’s intended. Additionally, I like to think people feel safer seeing someone care for the space.

What have been some of the most interesting things (pieces of trash, places or buildings you didn’t know existed, etc) you have come across during Love Your Park Solo?

A door handle, rubber toy hammerhead shark, toy cars.

In the Chamounix Youth Hostel area there is a friendly dog and cats that roam around. The cats in particular like watching me pick up litter. Also, it’s fun to watch young people being trained to ride horses.

On the Strawberry Mansion bridge there is a bunch of horse poop caked to the side of the bridge. I cleaned up a lot of it.

Wrigley gum wrappers are common and the most annoying trash. Thankfully I find many more wrappers than pieces of gum. Gum is difficult to clean up, but not as difficult as band aids. You would be surprised how well band aids adhere to asphalt.

What types of litter have you encountered the most, what has surprised you the most?

Blunt wrappers, parking violation notices, face masks, Wrigley Gum wrappers, plastic bags (especially from Wawa and Dunkin’), water bottles. More annoying than the water bottles are their branding labels that seem to slip off easily. I am sure our river is full of them.

What are some “trash hotspots” you would love to direct other Love Your Park Solo participants to?

Under the Strawberry Mansion bridge on the west side, there is still a bunch of household litter in the white rocks.

What are some words of wisdom for other folks who are considering participating in Love Your Park Solo?

Start your “trashabout” by going to pick up litter in a place you value and feel safe. If you want to start a habit, find somewhere that makes you feel comfortable or gives you the most value. In general, I have discovered that anywhere where cars park there is trash.

Humanity is humanity. Out of a hundred people that pass you, one or two people are not going to be nice. A few may be afraid of you. However, the other 92 or so people will make you feel great. You can read it in people’s countenances. Some people will publicly let you know their approval. It may not happen the first day you’re out there, but if you stick with it a couple times a week or so, friendly people will begin to notice and recognize you and your contribution. Personally, I like to feel valued and I cannot think of many people who do not see value in a clean space.

Are you still able to enjoy the parks without thinking about litter? And if so, how? 🙂

I developed something that I jokingly call “garbidar.” It is extremely hard not to see litter now. It is not just in the parks, but anywhere in our city. I find myself cleaning the Pine Street bike lanes while I walk sometimes just to make walking more enjoyable. I rollerblade sometimes and I have to remind myself repeatedly that I am participating as a park user today, not a cleaner. I am hard on myself. It is really hard to do.

However, I try to tell myself when I see some egregious litter scenario in my usual stomping grounds that the public is missing me, they just do not know it.

Anything else you would like to share?

I have some roots in litter cleanup. I volunteered in a nature corps near Brisbane, Australia for several months. I considered the Peace Corps, but a two and a half year commitment was too long for me. I met a lot of wonderful people during that nature corps experience. I planted trees, picked up trash, and built trails with people from all over the world. Additionally, I lived in Ireland for a year during college. I was the afternoon groundskeeper outside our student pub, The Stables. I would clean up student litter for a couple hours every weekday afternoon. I enjoyed being outdoors, making things nicer. It did not hurt earning a few Irish pounds currency each week too. My wife Megan and I won a green wedding sponsored by Greenfest on South Street in 2007. We were chosen over five other couples. Winning that wedding and the hand of my lovely wife were two of the greatest achievements in my life. Now I am paying back our city and planet with all the reciprocity I can muster.

We are so grateful to all of the volunteers that participated in Love Your Park Solo and the Love Your Park Fall Service Day this year. Learn about the many ways you can help support our work here.

All photos courtesy of Allen Rue.