AALEAD Park Clean-Up: Lessons Learned

By Diane Bui, Yonsoo Kang, and Stephanie Lim, AALEAD staff
Photos Courtesy of AALEAD Staff

On Saturday, April 16th, AALEADers in DC, Maryland, and Virginia participated in our annual Park Clean-Up event. We all spent the morning learning about the value of community service, the importance of recycling, and the choices we can make as individuals and communities to protect the Earth from harm.

Ken-Gar Palisades Park | Kensington, MD

The Ken-Gar Palisades Park in MD was a great place for youth to learn about litter that ends up in creeks and water sources. We had 31 AALEAD youth and staff in attendance this year! Youth learned about micro-trash, small bits of litter, such as candy wrappers and cigarette butts, that often go overlooked during clean-ups. In addition to making sure the playground area was clean, many youth spent the majority of the time in and around Rock Creek Trail and collected three bags full of glass. Under the supervision of AALEAD staff, as much glass as possible was collected to be disposed of properly.


Afterwards, many youth expressed concerns about how we are currently treating the environment. With the weather getting warmer and grass growing taller, it is often harder to see the litter that is spread out through the wind or our simple carelessness. Dana, a middle school youth, discussed the lack of trash and recycling cans in public areas. If there were more places to put trash, people would be less inclined to litter, but if there is no trash can in sight, it is often thrown on the ground and forgotten.

Park clean-ups are a great way to get youth out to help serve the community. With so many parks for youth to spend their time, it’s important they play a part in keeping the environment clean not only for us, but for the future youth in the community.

Accotink Creek, Americana Park | Annandale, VA

This past Saturday was quite special. Not only was this my first time leading a major AALEAD activity, but this was also Virginia’s first park clean-up!  AALEAD collaborated with Friends of Accotink Creek to pick up litter and recyclables along the banks of the creek. With the sun shining and clear blue skies, 22 youth from Annandale High School, and Poe and Holmes Middle schools arrived at Americana Park to meet Dave, the park volunteer. We had the support of our intern, Eileen, AALEAD mentor Xiaofei, one AALEAD volunteer, and six volunteers from Wells Fargo!  Splitting into three groups, the youth and volunteers quickly spread along the creek to pick up litter and recyclables.  The energy and enthusiasm were high and we were able to cover a lot of ground.

Here are a few items we found:

  • 3 tires and a car rim
  • Rope
  • A jacket
  • A lot of plastic bags and bottles
  • Thin scrap metal

After a couple hours, the three groups reconvened to tally our haul and enjoy some snacks.  While everyone relaxed on bleachers, I led everyone through a lesson on the importance of recycling, how litter impacts our environment, and the importance of personal responsibility.* Many were surprised about how long it takes for some objects to decompose.  For example, it takes about one million years for styrofoam to break down completely!

This clean-up was a chance for everyone to get to know each other from the three different program sites.  However, I was really excited about the impact the youth were making on their local community as well as the world.



“This creek runs all the way to the Chesapeake Bay and into the Atlantic Ocean so [though] you’re working local, your impact will be global.” – Dave Lincoln, Friends of Accotink Creek Volunteer

Many of the youth live on the other side of I-495 but hardly any of them knew about Accotink Creek.  Many of them immediately felt gratification.  “We were picking up all this trash and people were riding bikes and jogging and were smiling and saying things like, “You are all doing a great job!” or “Thank you for what you’re doing.”  There was this bike rider with a big smile on his face and he was nodding his head saying, ‘Awww yea, you guys great.’  It made me feel good inside.” – Kevin T.

“If a person sees trash and doesn’t pick it up because he or she think someone else will do it, then someone else can think the same thing.  Then the next person doesn’t do anything and next person doesn’t do anything.  Soon no one’s gonna do anything!” – Daniel H.

Based on the pictures, laughter, and shouting, I can say confidently we all had a good time!

Piney Branch-Crestwood section of Rock Creek Park | Washington, DC

Like Yonsoo, this was my first time leading a park clean-up. With around 60 people expected in attendance coupled with the beautiful weather, I was excited to get things underway. We began the clean-up at 9:30AM. Around 60 AALEAD youth, staff, parents, mentors, and volunteers from CAPAL (Conference on Asian Pacific American Leadership) were split into five groups, scouring our section of the park for trash and recyclables.

One of the highlights of the morning for me personally was seeing such high levels of engagement among all participants. All youth, staff, and volunteers worked together, had fun, and debated personal vs. community responsibility in reducing waste and recycling. We found and sorted a wide range of items, which brought our post clean-up discussions to life. What better way to understand the effects of leaving rusting metal and cigarette butts to deteriorate in nature than to see it yourself? This hands-on learning experience was truly illuminating.


Our youth clearly conveyed the lessons of the day through their words and actions. I was so impressed by Nabil C.’s persistence as he picked out small pieces of glass from the dirt road, Selena J.’s thoughtful responses to our group discussions, Ying L.’s emphatic support of the benefits of recycling, and Felicity A.’s effort to speak in front a large group of older youth and adults.

I’m so thankful to our staff for working together to organize this event, to our AALEAD mentors for supporting their mentees, to the volunteers who joined us at all three regions, and to our youth for stepping up and giving us a glimpse into their growth as caring and thoughtful leaders.

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