Environmental educator Pat Mitchell, better known as Auntie Litter, has a message for the people of this state. “Alabama needs to rally and come together to think about the most precious things we have and protect them,” she says. “If we all come together we can get on the same page and decide what we need to do. “
Mitchell will have an opportunity to share this message with educators, business people and public officials from across Alabama when she hosts the second annual Take Pride Statewide conference at the Vulcan Materials Center for Environmental Stewardship and Education at Samford University in Birmingham on July 28-29. She started the conference last year in order to promote litter prevention and related environmental causes in Alabama.
Mitchell is a former elementary school teacher and the founder of Birmingham non-profit Auntie Litter, Inc. She has developed a national reputation by creating entertaining environmental education programs and materials, often for school children. She regularly appears at public events dressed as the character of Auntie Litter.
But the conference will be more than just entertainment. Attendees, according to Mitchell, will get practical tips and information that should empower them to start litter prevention programs in their communities. “They learn how to write grants, how to recruit volunteers, how to stage an event, how to publicize an event, how to teach the children, how to educate the public,” Mitchell says. “Plus we give them thousands of materials to take home and give away at no extra charge.”
According to Mitchell, this sort of outreach is critical, given Alabama’s increasingly expensive litter problem. “The state spends $13 million a year picking up litter on the main highways,” she says. “Some small municipalities don’t have the budget to do litter pickup and it’s becoming harder for volunteers to pick it up. That’s why we encourage education and prevention. At Auntie Litter our whole mission is about preventing the problem before it starts.”
In addition to litter prevention, the conference offers attendees information regarding such topics as recycling, waste reduction and conservation of natural resources. “And they learn from the experts,” Mitchell says. “They are sharing what works.”
Among the speakers this year will be Dr. Doug Phillips from Alabama Public Television’s Discovering Alabama, Bob Haskins, director of Keep Mobile Beautiful, and Hoover mayor Tony Petelos, who will discuss his city’s use of alternative fuels in its vehicles.
The biggest star at the conference will be actor and environmental activist Ed Begley Jr., who will deliver the keynote address. According to Mitchell, she met Begley in Birmingham in 2003 at an Earth Day tree-planting event and he agreed to participate in the Auntie Litter Earth Day parade the next day. He later returned to participate in an Auntie Litter fundraiser.
Begley appears at many green events and usually speaks on the subject of “Live Simply So Others May Simply Live.” This is in keeping with Begley’s life and personality, according to Mitchell. “He has very simple ways of doing things,” she says. “He grows his own vegetables. He collects rainwater to irrigate his garden. He rides his bike a lot. He has wonderful ideas about how people can do things better.”
While in Birmingham, Begley will also make an appearance at the Green Building Focus Conference and Expo to be held at the BJCC on July 28-29. That conference is sponsored by Birmingham firm Green Building Focus.
According to Mitchell, numerous environmental projects were initiated around the state last year as a result of the first Take Pride conference. “One group did a hazardous waste collection day,” she says. “There was a new cleanup program at Lake Martin.” Auntie Litter program director Julie Wade cites some other examples, including a woman in Millport, Alabama who completed all of the lesson plans in the 2008 Take Pride Statewide manual with the children in her local schools.
Why is litter a problem, other than aesthetic concerns? “It’s important that we live in a clean and healthy environment,” Mitchell says. “And litter affects us in more ways than we realize. People carelessly discard something out of the car window or place trash near the gutter, and it eventually winds up in the rivers and lakes, creating pollution. Discarded tires that fill with water breed insects that can cause disease.”
Mitchell has a broader definition of litter than just paper bags and beer cans, though. “It’s anything that is unclean and unhealthy in our environment,” she says, “Litter can be solids, liquids or gases in the land, the water, or the air. No matter what form litter takes, it will have an effect. Everything we do impacts the environment in a good way or a bad way.”
Registration for the Take Pride Statewide conference is $100 per person. For information, call (205) 879-3009 or visit www.auntielitter.org.