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Recycle, reuse and change the world

JMU housekeeper Shirley 'Lea' Foley has found her way to make a difference
By Jan Gillis ('07)

Lea Foley

Since her JMU career began in 2001, Lea Foley has made a reputation as a diligent housekeeper and green advocate.

Embracing the belief that one person truly can make a difference is, at times, a journey. Shirley "Lea" Foley knows the exact moment her personal sojourn began.

The journey begins

The West Virginia native remembers herself at 5 years old, sitting in the family vehicle as it made a routine pilgrimage through the rural countryside to Charleston, the highway following a mountain stream along the way. “The roads were dirty,” she recalls. “It wasn’t unusual back in those days for people to litter — eat a hamburger, throw the paper out the window; finish a soda, throw the bottle out the window.” The streambed was often littered with household rubbish, discarded tires and the occasional abandoned refrigerator.

“While we were driving this particular time, one of my teenage sisters threw a gum wrapper out the car window.” Foley’s father immediately stopped the car and ordered his daughter to go back and pick up the paper. To the toddler, her father’s request was a puzzlement; there was trash everywhere. Her sister mouthed the same reaction. “Nobody’s going to notice one piece of paper!”

“I’ll never forget what my dad did,” Foley says. “He looked her in the eye and said, ‘If everyone who threw their trash out here had picked it up, I could still fish in that stream. Everybody figured one person won’t make a difference!’”

Lea's sister went back and picked up the wrapper.

People can make a difference

Lea's father, Charley Foley

Lea credits her father, Charley Foley, for her interest in the green movement.

In time Foley would decide to adopt her father's philosophy as her own. "Part of my interest in the green movement is my father's legacy. He died when I was 10, but the things he did came back to my mind as an adult." Years later, traveling by that same stream, Foley saw people fishing. The recycling movement had begun in earnest in America's countryside; people stopped littering, cleaned up refuse. The stream that had been polluted was flowing beautiful and clear. "It was then I knew why my father did what he did and said what he said."

JMU Career

Foley has made a reputation for herself since her career began on JMU’s campus in March 2001 as a housekeeper. A diligent worker with a keen eye that observes the details and makes sure they’re suitably polished, Foley wins consistent kudos from the staff members who work in the building where she’s assigned. She is known to be scrupulous about her cleaning assignment — and thoughtful. “She does things like wipe down door knobs and keyboards during the flu season,” says Michelle Hite, who works at 220 University Boulevard. “She always has a smile to greet university advancement staffers in the morning.”

Advocating green, as well as clean

However the way she has gone above and beyond her regular duties, ensuring that sustainability becomes the watchword for the staff members at the address, earns her extra admiration. “Lea is very conscientious about recycling. She showed me how she makes containers out of CD containers people have discarded. She is a very good housekeeper, but her devotion to recycling is definitely world-changing,” says Eric Gorton, a public affairs officer who worked with Foley.

She disciplines her personal life with the same rigorous attention to environmental awareness, recycling, cleaning with green chemicals, and always advocating, ever so politely, the advantages of being green to others.

In the offices she cleans, staff members know to go to Foley with questions about recycling, and she’s not averse to lending a helping hand when people forget to think green. “Sometimes people don’t have the time to put things in recycling, I figure it’s better that I take the time to go through and put in recycling what can be there. It’s one of the things I feel good about. I don’t want to contribute to the problem. It’s the little thing I can do. I can control the amount of material that goes to trash versus recycling.”

Seeing the power of the individual

She’s honest about the extra workload her green commitment puts upon her. “I’ve been told recycling isn’t my job, and it isn’t.” Why then does she expend the extra effort? “It’s not my job — it’s my obligation,” she explains. “As a mother and a member of a consumer-oriented society, I feel the need to leave as small a footprint on the planet as I can.”

Her ability to boil things down to her individual level is key to her motivation to think green. In fact, her personal focus on the students gives impetus to her commitment to sustainability. “This is my way of giving back. Saving on our expenses at the university, means saving money that can go into the education of our students,” she says.

Foley is convinced that her dad was right -- one person does make a difference, and each and every person is a vital part of sustaining the earth for future generations. She's doing her part and more.

Lea Foley writes of the life-changing lesson her father taught in "A childhood lesson" on MadisonOnline.

About the author

Jan Gillis ('07) coordinates JMU's "Be the Change" campaign and is the editor of MadisonOnline. Send comments and story ideas to gillisjc@jmu.edu.