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...that I didn't comprehend until I was an adult
By Shirley "Lea" Foley
We all have memories of our childhood, our friends, our home, our school, our pets and our family. As we grow older some of them fade, others become more precious or, as in this case, we come to understand the importance of what that memory really meant.
JMU housekeeper Lea Foley used a childhood lesson for her inspiration to make a difference in the world.
You have to understand that it was a different world back then. We lived in town but never locked our doors, if the kids were out playing past dark they only got in trouble for being late to dinner. There was no recycling; if you broke something you couldn't fix, you threw it away. There were few city or county-run trash pick ups. You had to pay someone to come around once a week or so to pick up your garbage and take it to the dump. A lot of people didn't want to pay anyone. Either they took it to the dump themselves; or they took it out to the county somewhere and threw it over an embankment; or, if they were lazy, they just stopped at the side of the road and dumped it out of their car. Sure, there were plenty of places that people didn't use as trash dumps; and they were beautiful and clean and unspoiled -- but they were only where no one lived or could not get too easily.
I was born late in my Daddy's life; he was in his mid 50s. The youngest one next to me was 10 years older, my sister Charlotte. She had been the baby of the family for 10 years, and then suddenly there I was. She was always getting me in trouble; whenever she got into something she shouldn't have, she said it was me. Not to mention the times I really did do something I wasn't supposed to she always made sure Mom and Dad knew it. This was the one time she got caught in the act and couldn't blame me.
We lived in a small town in southern West Virginia. A big thing for the family was the two to four times a year Daddy loaded us into the car, and we drove to Charleston. The road followed a stream that lead into the Gauley River. I remember all the trash that people had thrown out of their cars along the side of the road, not to mention seeing old cars, an old refrigerator, tires and trash people had thrown into the stream.
I must have been about 5 years old at the time. I was in the back seat between Charlotte and Nancy (my other sister) when Charlotte threw a gum wrapper out the car window. Daddy pulled the car to the side of the road, stopped, and told Charlotte to go back and pick up the wrapper she had thrown out the window. She said, "Why, who is going to notice one little gum wrapper?" I will admit at the time I was as shocked as Charlotte at Daddy's words; there was trash everywhere.
5-year-old Lea Foley was taught a lesson she learned to live by.
I'll never forget what he said, "Everyone who cares will; I will. You see that stream over there? I used to fish in that stream, but one man decided it was all right to throw his trash in it, and another man saw him and figured it was all right for him to do it too, until it got so dirty that now nothing can live in the water. I will never fish in that stream again; no one will! Now go back and pick up that wrapper, or I will turn the car around and take you home." With that he handed her a paper bag and told her to fill it up. Charlotte got out of the car and did what she was told. When she finished, Daddy got out of the car, opened the trunk and had Charlotte put the bag of trash in. He and Charlotte talked for a while before they returned; I will never know what he said to her. What I do know was that she pouted the rest of the trip while I held onto Daddy's hand smiling at her because she had gotten into trouble that she couldn't blame me for.
After we grew up and she couldn't blame me for things she did, I used to tease her about the day that Daddy made her clean up the road to Charleston.
About 12 or 13 years ago, I was in West Virginia and decided to go for a drive. I ended up on the old road to Charleston. As I drove, I remembered several of those family drives. There were a lot of changes, some of the old houses and buildings I remembered were gone, and others had taken their place. Some areas were built up while others were deserted. I remembered an old wooden bridge that went over the stream near where Charlotte had thrown out the gum wrapper. There had been an old fashioned refrigerator in the water under the bridge. It had been there for as long as I could remember. I glanced over to see it and to my surprise it was gone.
I smiled to myself as I remembered the day that my sister had got caught. I saw two picnic tables at the side of road and decided to pull over. I had been drinking a cup of coffee and went to put the cup in the trash can there and saw that other people had put their trash in the can also. As I looked around I couldn't help but notice how clean everything looked now -- nothing like that day many years ago. I walked to the stream and looked down at the crystal clear water flowing over the rocks in the streambed. As I glanced up the stream, I saw two men standing on the bank fishing. As one of them pulled a fish from the water, I remembered Daddy's words that day. At that moment the way I looked at the world and the way my decisions affected it changed forever.
Foley says her father 'tried to tell us ... that everything we did had an effect, be it good or bad.'
A long time ago one man had decided it was all right for him to throw his trash in the stream, then one day another man had decided it was time to go fishing again. They had each made a decision. One was the problem, and one was the solution. Daddy tried to tell us girls that day to do what was right, that everything we did had an effect, be it good or bad. And we didn't hear him. I looked up and said, "It took awhile, but I get it now, Daddy. I will do better."
It's been a long slow journey for me, learning to make the right decisions, learning how and what I can recycle, how to use less energy, how to do the things I need to do without poisoning the environment be it at home or at work. I don't always get it right, but I am learning from my mistakes.
As for Daddy, he died when I was still a little girl. He never got to fish in that stream again; but because of people like him, maybe one of my grandsons will!
JMU staff member Lea Foley makes sure that co-workers think green. Her commitment to recycling and sustainability earned her recognition as a Madison world changer.