(CNN) — Chad Pregracke, an Illinois man who has dedicated his lifeto cleaning the Mississippi River and other U.S. waterways, is the 2013 CNN Hero of the Year.
Pregracke organizes community cleanups across the country through his nonprofit, Living Lands & Waters. About 70,000 volunteers have pitched in, helping Pregracke collect more than 7 million pounds of trash in the past 15 years.
“The garbage got into the water one piece at a time,” Pregracke said earlier this year. “And that’s the only way it’s going to come out.”
Pregracke was recognized during Sunday night’s airing of “CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute” along with the rest of this year’s top 10 CNN Heroes — everyday people doing extraordinary things to help change the world. He was chosen as Hero of the Year through a five-week public vote on CNN.com.
“I’ll just keep on cleaning up America’s rivers and loving every minute of it,” said Pregracke when he accepted the award.
For being named CNN Hero of the Year, Pregracke receives $250,000 to continue his work. That is in addition to the $50,000 that each Hero receives for making the top 10.
During the show, Pregracke pledged to spread some of his Hero of the Year money to the rest of the top 10 Heroes: “I’ve met so many great people today, the other Heroes, and I’m really moved by all their stories and all the things they do around the world. … I’m going to give 10 grand to each of them, because they’re awesome.”
Pregracke, 38, grew up in East Moline, Illinois, where the Mississippi River was in his backyard. As a teenager, he worked as a commercial shell diver and began to notice the heaps of debris in the fabled waterway, which supplies drinking water to 18 million people in more than 50 U.S. cities.
“I saw thousands of barrels, thousands of tires, cars, trucks and tops of school buses. … I got sick of seeing it and just wanted to do something about it,” said Pregracke, whom some have called “the rivers’ garbageman.”
For nine months out of the year, Pregracke lives on a barge with members of his 12-person crew. They go around the country with a fleet of boats, and they try to make cleanup fun for the volunteers who show up in each city.
They use skits, music and mock motivational speeches to get the volunteers amped up, and sometimes they even do a little karaoke. Teams also compete to see who can find the “best” garbage.
“We do everything in our power to get people excited about it,” Pregracke said. “We want people to leave feeling good about what they did so they’ll come back.”
Close to 90% of what they recover is recycled; Pregracke said the rest gets disposed of properly.
In addition to the river cleanup, Pregracke has launched a floating classroom barge where his staff educates high school students and teachers about the damages of pollution on river ecosystems. In 2007, his nonprofit implemented a program to plant 1 million trees along river shorelines to protect and restore the natural environment. The group is halfway to its goal.
Pregracke says his nonprofit has already held more than 700 cleanups on 23 rivers, but he says he’s just getting started. He views his work as a different kind of service to the country.
“A lot of people call me a conservationist or an environmentalist, but the thing is I’m no different than anybody else,” he said. “I just want to be known (as) a hardworking America
CNN Hero cleans up America’s rivers
This is the seventh year CNN has conducted its annual search for CNN Heroes. In those years, the campaign has profiled more than 200 people on CNN and CNN.com.
This year’s top 10 were nominated by CNN’s global audience and profiled earlier this year on CNN.
In addition to receiving $50,000, each will also receive free organizational training from the Annenberg Foundation, a leading supporter of nonprofits worldwide. The Heroes will participate in a customized version of theAnnenberg Alchemy program, which offers practical guidance to help strengthen organizations for long-term success.