On the Record with Julie Jesmer

DeKALB – Even on vacation, Julie Jesmer keeps an eye out for trash in the street and picks it up.

Jesmer co-founded Trash Squirrels, a local cleanup group, with her friend Laura Adkins in July 2020.

On Earth Day, Friday, April 22, Trash Squirrels will team up with the DeKalb Park District, city of DeKalb, Kishwaukee Water Reclamation District and Northern Illinois University for a communitywide cleanup event.

From 10 a.m. to noon, individuals, families and service groups can come together to pick up trash and debris in locations across DeKalb, including the NIU campus, Hopkins Park, Welsh Park, Rotary Park and Boardman/Pappas Park. Lunch will be served after the event at the Hopkins Park Shelter.

To participate in the event, registration and a signed waiver are required online at http://go.niu.edu/CommCleanUp22.

For more information about Trash Squirrels, visit the Facebook group. The group plans to host one cleanup event every weekend through September.

Jesmer spoke to MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton about Trash Squirrels and how picking up trash makes a long-term difference in the environment.

Milton: How did Trash Squirrels start?

Jesmer: I always pick up trash on the street as I’m walking. I can’t ignore it. Even when I was traveling to New York and Montreal, I wanted to stop and pick up trash that I saw. … The idea for the Trash Squirrels group started in July 2020 when I was cleaning up Greenwood Acres Drive with my son. My friend Laura Adkins stopped by when she saw us. She asked, “What are you doing?” and when I told her, she said, “Let’s start a group.” It started as a way to beautify the city of DeKalb. I like to ride my bike, and the reason I was cleaning up that road was because I kept seeing trash everywhere. I wanted to have a clean path to ride my bike and a clean path for people walking.

Milton: How did the group grow?

Jesmer: The group has really taken off in the last year. Our goal is to have 10 people at each event who pick up 10 pounds of trash each. Last year, we held 24 events and picked up 6,222 pounds of trash, which is more than 3 tons. Our first event of this year, we had 37 people that came and picked up 530 pounds of trash.

Milton: How has the group grown?

Jesmer: Our group’s biggest sponsor of events is Philip Henrikson of There’s Fun in Store. He brings water and snacks, poles and gloves and gives a $10 gift card to his store to everyone that comes out to the event. He also has given out black and white T-shirts and sells a colored T-shirt at his store in DeKalb.

Milton: What do cleanup events look like?

Jesmer: We meet under a tent, gear up with gloves and poles, and pick up trash in the area. At the end of the event, we weigh the bags of trash collected, and the city of DeKalb picks up the bagged trash afterwards.

Milton: What types of trash are picked up?

Jesmer: Most of the trash is blown away from dumpsters. The three most common items we find are plastic bags, face masks and water bottles. None of those are biodegradable, so they are affecting whatever they land on, disrupting the soil, foliage and animal life.

Milton: How has the Trash Squirrels group made a difference?

Jesmer: We haven’t done any studies to see what the effects have been, but people often tell me that the community looks cleaner. We’re trying a few different things this year to get more people in the community. We’re trying to partner with businesses to make joint events with employees to clean up around their buildings.

Milton: What is the group’s long-term goal?

Jesmer: I always encourage people to pick up trash wherever they are and to make it a lifestyle. Bring a bag with you when you’re out riding your bike or walking your dog. We’re looking into litter laws in Illinois and DeKalb. DeKalb Township has a litter law and some signs that say “Don’t litter, $250 fine.” We’ve also been looking into getting rid of plastic bags in stores, which would be getting rid of the source of most of the trash. Some trash cans were added in the Annie Glidden North neighborhood, but there are none along Peace Road. In the future, we’d like to compete [for the title of] Cleanest City in the State. We hope to expand countywide and expand Trash Squirrels into other cities in the county. We’re already talking about starting a group in Sycamore and the mayor of Cortland helped coordinate an event last year.

Milton: How can people make a difference?

Jesmer: If you don’t make it a lifestyle, it’s not going to happen. Adopt a highway or road, take a walk and pick up some garbage. It won’t make a difference if we only do it once a year. If we want a substantial change in our community and if we really want to change our environment, we have to make it a lifestyle. Bring your kids along to an event, we have smaller poles kids can use to pick up trash. Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts can participate in events, and we’re open to partnerships with businesses and organizations. People can also complete community service hours with us.

Katrina Milton

Katrina J.E. Milton

Award-winning reporter and photographer for Shaw Media publications, including The Daily Chronicle and The MidWeek newspapers in DeKalb County, Illinois, since 2012.