The people in orange vests and helmets picking up discarded coffee cups, cigarette butts and banana peels by the side of the road might not be Caltrans employees or probationers and inmates. They could be your law-abiding neighbors who have adopted stretches of the state’s freeways and highways and taken responsibility for cleaning up the litter.
These citizens are part of the statewide Adopt-a-Highway program, which began in 1989. Six organizations in the San Fernando, Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys--ranging from employees of a fast-food chain to members of a mining association--have been accepted by or are applying to the state Department of Transportation to become involved in the trash pickup.
One of the groups is the leadership class at Desert Christian High School in Lancaster. Principal Will Wilson and 16 students take care of both sides of the Antelope Valley Freeway between avenues J and L.
“You’ve got to give back to the community where you live and work,” Wilson said. “Besides being a great idea, it gives everyone a chance to become involved.”
“We learned a lot,” said Wilson, 35, who, along with a Caltrans representative, chaperones the teen-agers. “It was a lot harder project than I realized. The slopes, the tumbleweeds and the blisters,” he said, adding that his group filled more than 100 bags on a recent outing.
Open to nonpolitical organizations, corporations, groups and individuals, California’s Adopt-a-Highway program is similar to those in more than two dozen other states.
“Everybody from the Boy Scouts to the Civil Air Patrol to college fraternities and church groups is interested,” said James L. Knox, 53, Caltrans program coordinator for Los Angeles and Ventura counties. “It’s great to see the community involved.”
Once Caltrans assigns a section of the road--usually about two miles--to a group, the volunteers agree to work the area at least four times a year for a two-year period.
Volunteers are asked only to collect the litter in trash bags, Knox said; Caltrans employees later throw the bags on trucks. In return, the workers are rewarded with a 4-by-7-foot roadside sign informing motorists that the area is just a little cleaner thanks to their hard work.
While recognition is appreciated, volunteers say it is local pride that made them sign up for the program.
“One of our goals was to find a way to serve the community,” Wilson said of his group. With the motto, “To Learn by Doing, Lead by Serving,” the Adopt-a-Highway program seemed an obvious choice as a project, he said.
Members of the High Desert Contractors Assn. in Lancaster said they joined the program because they didn’t like seeing their area so trashed. The association takes care of two miles of California 138 between 40th Street East and Avenue S.
“It’s important for us to do community service projects,” member Debbie Richard, 27, said.
“We have quite a sense of accomplishment when we’re finished for the day, and I yell at people when I see them toss something out of the car.”
The association picks up about 22 truckloads of trash per outing, she said, adding that members also keep an eye out for motorists who think that the roadside is their garbage can. “I’ll write down their license plate and turn them in,” Richard said.
Sigma Chi fraternity brothers at Cal State Northridge say they like the program because it gives them a chance not only to support the community--they’ve adopted the Simi Valley Freeway from Balboa Boulevard to Tampa Avenue--but to improve the image of fraternities.
“We want to get rid of the ‘Animal House’ image many fraternities have,” said Rick Golden, 19. “For so many of us, it’s far from the truth.”
The Western Mining Council, which represents miners and prospectors, has signed up for a stretch of Topanga Canyon Boulevard from Nordhoff Street to the Simi Valley Freeway.
“If it’s not hot, it’s a very enjoyable experience, and we’re treated to a view of the Santa Susana Mountains,” council member Dan Velcoff said. “But you are drained.”
Volunteering to pick up trash, however, doesn’t mean one can make a beeline to the freeway or highway with a helmet and a trash bag. Caltrans won’t let anyone participate without a complete safety briefing, and some stretches of road are off-limits for safety reasons.
“We’re concerned about their welfare,” said Tom Pellerin, 47, of Caltrans. “And we certainly don’t want anyone hurt, which means the volunteers are instructed not to touch sealed drums of any kind, anything that might smell, syringes, needles or broken glass.”
Still, what’s left for the volunteers to pick up isn’t necessarily boring.
In their first few hours as roadside garbage collectors, the 14- and 15-year-old students from Desert Christian High found golf balls, a hubcap, a Frisbee, a couple of five-gallon water bottles, a gas cap, a poster advertising a topless bar, a license plate, a Dear John letter, a size 10 1/2 left shoe, condoms, a wallet, men’s underwear, a photo of “Ron and Vicki’s wedding reception” dated 1971, and lots of soiled disposable diapers.
“It’ll make me think twice about throwing litter out of the car,” said orange-helmeted sophomore Jennifer Abate, 15, holding up Ron and Vicki’s photo.
“People will throw almost anything out their car window,” Pellerin said.
In his 18 years with Caltrans, Pellerin said he’s also come across camper shells, sleeping bags, lots of single shoes, a kitchen sink and “anything that was ever thrown out of an ashtray.”
“We’ve had good luck with the program,” he said. “The people show a lot of enthusiasm. There’s more and more litter out there, and we don’t have the time or manpower to concentrate on cleaning it up.”
“We made a dent,” Wilson said of the 100 bags of litter he and his students picked up from both sides of their more than two-mile stretch. “A small one perhaps but, nevertheless, a dent. It’ll be interesting to see how many of these same students come out again next time.”
Groups or individuals interested in the Adopt-a-Highway program may contact Caltrans through James L. Knox, the coordinator for Ventura and Los Angeles counties, at (213) 620-4893.