Chad Pregracke: ‘All Hands On Deck’

Since he was a teenager, Chad Pregracke’s life’s mission has been cleaning up polluted rivers and otherwise caring for the environment. His early vision has grown into “the only industrial strength river clean-up organization like it in the world,” the non-profit ‘Living Lands & Waters.’

Due to the efforts of Pregracke, 13 staff members, thousands of volunteers up and down the Mississippi River region, and dozens of vital corporate partners, the organization, founded in 1998, has continued to thrive into 2020. To read more about this impressive young man and his life-affirming mission, please see our original article here.

2020 – A Year Like No Other

Just three months into 2020, we are suffering a year like no other in America’s history. “A smart friend of mine,” says Pregracke, “compared the impact this pandemic is having to the 2008 financial meltdown and the 9/11 terrorist attacks combined. That sounds pretty scary.”With public life as we’ve known it largely idled, from schools to businesses to leisure activities, one would think this the perfect time to be out in nature volunteering to clean up the rivers. But like most of us, Pregracke’s organization has two problems called ‘quarantining’ and ‘social distancing.’ (a.k.a. following the CDC guidelines)

We caught up with Pregracke quarantined somewhere along the banks of the Mississippi River and he reported that, “I know at least four people who have contracted the virus. But it sounds like they’ll be okay, thankfully, and everyone in our organization is healthy.”

“We are dealing with what’s at hand,” he says, “like everyone else. This week is supposed to be especially bad. So we’re watching and hoping for the best.”

And every day he’s been asking the question, “how can we keep doing what we’re doing, and doing it safely?” As the captain of a ship caught in stormy seas would say, “we’re in ‘all hands on deck’ mode, working every day as a team to keep the mission alive.”

The Mission Lives On

While his substantial river clean-up barge is stored in Memphis, Tennessee, Pregracke and his crew are meeting everyday by Zoom Video in the East Moline, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa area, where their beloved river cuts through state borders. This is home for Living Lands & Waters.

“Zoom is a nice service,” he says. We still communicate but in a different way, and after a few weeks it feels natural.”

With the main vessel in storage, the event schedule cancelled or delayed, the volunteers in quarantine and the corporate sponsors in crisis mode, what are they talking about every day, we asked.

“I guess you could say we’re lucky,” he says,” this is our quiet time of year anyway. From mid-March through Earth Day we work on our trees project.”

He’s referring to his organization’s ‘MillionTrees’ Project, which among other more urgent priorities, probably needs to update its name. They’ve now grown and planted nearly 1.4 million trees and counting.“We’re getting the supplies we need in Illinois,” he says, “and with the help of great partners like Fed Ex, we’re preparing over 350 deliveries in the Midwest. People still want their trees but we’re being strict on safety and other protocols.”

Pregracke has started the process of applying for federal SBA loan relief but doesn’t know what will come of it. His local banker reached out and suggested he complete the application. “They are another great partner of ours,” he said gratefully.Like many small business owners across America, he’s been watching with trepidation the rocky roll-out of the program. Because it directly relates to emergency funding to keep his staff of 13 employed through the shutdown, he’s hoping to hear good news soon.

He recalls the serious economic downturn in 2008 and how “the great relationships we’d built with corporations and thousands of people helped us through and made us stronger in the end.” By all measures, he can depend on that irreplaceable asset being even stronger this time around.

Lasting impact

Pregracke expressed deep sympathy for the businesses that are bearing the more direct burden of the shutdown, such as bars and restaurants, saying “sitting at home watching your life’s work dwindle away is brutal, a tragedy.”Friends around the country are telling him they are witnessing daily acts of compassion as people unify to overcome the shared threat. While this change in human behavior often happens in the early stages of serious crises, he’s hoping the empathy lasts and is directed to those most in need.He expects this period of being cooped up at home to have some lasting benefits. “Maybe it will drive people to better appreciate the outdoors and its natural beauty.” He’s especially hoping a future surge in outdoor activity includes a renewed commitment to improving the environment, be it the rivers, lakes, oceans or the land.Living Lands & Water has been built from the beginning by overcoming obstacles,” he affirms. “This one was unforeseen and we’re working hard every day to overcome it.”

He firmly believes that bad times often lead to good times, and within any bad thing is an opportunity. “That’s what needs to happen here,” he says, “and with everyone pulling together, I believe that will be the outcome.”

With that type of optimism, we can imagine that many more of our polluted waterways will soon be blessed with the sight of his barge setting anchor nearby, with ‘all hands on deck,’ ready to share their unique brand of love and healing.