New film looks at Pregracke’s work: ‘You can make a difference’

Chad Pregracke, founder of Living Lands & Waters, is shown near the group’s new education barge in June just before the group’s 2023 Barge Party. Mr. Pregracke and LLW’s work are featured in a new documentary called “Study Aboard.” CREDIT DAVE THOMPSON

A new documentary film looks at Quad Cities native Chad Pregracke’s efforts to protect the Mississippi River, and how he is helping students get interested in the vital work.

That documentary, called “Study Aboard,” centers on Mr. Pregracke and his organization, Living Lands & Waters (LLW) and their quest to protect the river while empowering students to change the world. The film, which premieres online today, Friday, Sept. 15, is presented by the Rivers are Life organization. (Go here to see more the documentary.)

Mr.  Pregracke and the LLW barges have removed more than 13 million pounds of trash from America’s rivers over the years.

After years of working on the Mississippi River as a clam diver, commercial fisherman and barge hand, Mr. Pregracke became appalled by the amount of garbage in the river and decided that if no one else was going to do something about it, he would. At the age of 23, he founded Living Lands & Waters in 1998, an organization dedicated to keeping rivers clean and safe.

“Study Aboard” tells the story of that group’s “Alternative Spring Break” trips. Each year for about the past 16 years, Mr. Pregracke and his crew host college students on their workboats in Memphis, Tennessee. Students from all over the country spend a week in a floating classroom and living quarters on Lake McKeller, collecting trash before it flows into the Mississippi River.

The trash is then brought to their barge, where it piles up and creates an impactful visual intended to move people to realize the magnitude of the problem. Finally, the trash is recycled at a local recycling operation. These “Alternative Spring Breaks” show students firsthand the issues facing the country’s rivers, while inspiring them and local residents to act now to protect them.

“If everybody had a cause, the world would be a better place,” Mr. Pregracke tells students, according to a news release from the Rivers are Life group. “You can make a difference, and hard work will pay off in the long run. All you need to do is change your world. That’s how the world changes.” 

Mr. Pregracke told the QCBJ this morning that the “Alternative Spring Break” trips are one of his favorite and most “uplifting” activities.

“It’s extremely uplifting to see all these young students come together for a common cause. … The energy is just uplifting. It’s one of best programs we have,” Mr. Pregracke said in a telephone interview as he was traveling back to the Quad Cities region after meetings in Michigan and Indiana.

The  “Alternative Spring Break” trips started about 16 years ago when Mr. Pregracke gave a speech at a college. He ended that presentation with the comment: “If you students have time, we could use the help.”

Soon after that, two vans filled with students showed up at one of his river cleanup sites, and a new program was formed.

Mr. Pregracke said he believes the program will continue every spring for the foreseeable future.

A spring program barge hosts 60 students for each week-long session during the “Alternate Spring Break” work. Mr. Pregracke, along with Education Facilitator Mike “Coach” Coyne-Logan and communication specialist Callie Schaser, lead the experience that’s designed to be just as entertaining as a vacation.

“What drives me is just the tangible results, the adventure of it all, the people you meet, the cool cities you visit,” Mr. Coyne-Logan said in information provided by the Rivers are Life organization. (That organization is “a platform created to build a human connection with rivers around the world and inspire action to improve, protect and preserve them,” according to the group.)

One of LLW’s river barges – called the Mississippi River Institute Floating Classroom – was the center of attention on June 15 during  the Living Lands & Waters’ 2023 Barge Party at Beacon Harbor in East Moline. This is not the barge featured in the new documentary. When filming took place in March, the group was using its original classroom barge for the “Alternative Spring Break” trips, Leah Cafarelli, marketing manager for LLW, told the QCBJ this week.

Ms. Cafarelli added that work on the new classroom barge was still taking place this summer during the Barge Party.

The new “Floating Classroom” barge is expected to be docked in the Quad Cities for at least six months of the year to help conduct education lessons to area students, and host meetings for local groups and organizations.

“The hands-on learning experiences offered in the (new) floating classroom will foster a sense of stewardship among students, encouraging them to become future guardians of our waterways. Notably, the classroom barge was constructed using repurposed materials, including various items salvaged from the river,” according to information from LLW.

This summer, Mr. Pregracke gave the QCBJ a tour of the new barge. In addition to helping clean up rivers, he said he hopes the vessel will help young people discover that there are good-paying jobs on rivers.  For example, a towboat captain, who he said can make more than $100,000 a year for about six months of work every year.

“This is going to give (students) a better sense of the river. It’s not just beautiful. There’s an opportunity for adventurous, high-paying jobs,” he added.

To date, LLW has educated 11,386 college students from all over the country. Beyond “Alternative Spring Breaks,” the organization has worked on 25 rivers in 21 states and has hosted 1,326 community-based cleanups.

Spending up to nine months a year living and traveling on the barge, the LLW crew hosts many river cleanups, watershed conservation initiatives, workshops, tree plantings and other key conservation efforts. They collect 100,000 pounds of trash each year, with a total of 13,000,000 pounds of trash removed to date.

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