By Katrina Scalise Republican-American
NAUGATUCK — The Waterbury PAL River Brigade has pulled all sorts of trash and debris from the Naugatuck River every summer since 2018, and the finds continue to amaze.
“The craziest thing I’ve pulled out of the river was a VCR player, which had an eel in the eject button,” said 19-year-old brigade member Ryan Vincent, one of 10 young people, ages 14 to 21, hired to clean the riverbank as part of Waterbury Police Activity League’s summer job program. “My favorite part of this job is looking back at an area you’ve just cleaned and seeing it in its natural state.”
PAL offers various recreation programs and summer jobs, including school tutoring, landscaping, park corps, culinary work and sports management, said Waterbury police officer Querino Maia, PAL coordinator.
Maia has overseen PAL’s River Brigade program as an acting supervisor since its start in 2018, and has been with the Waterbury Police Department for nearly 24 years. He credits the program’s start and popularity to Mayor Neil M. O’Leary.
“It was the mayor’s idea,” he said. “Without him, we wouldn’t have all this right now. Most of the kids have been with us since 2018 because they like it so much. We must have cleaned a crazy amount by now, about 10 of the 40 miles of the river maybe – it’s hard to gauge.”
Since 2018, the River Brigade has accepted 10 applicants from Waterbury, Watertown and Naugatuck, with two spots set aside for Naugatuck residents specifically.
Elena Chapio of Waterbury, a third-year brigade member, said she appreciates the challenge compared to other summer jobs.
“I feel like people underestimate what we do, and once they see it themselves they’re impressed,” she said. “It makes a difference, and being a veteran at this, you can see the difference yourself in the areas you’ve cleaned.”
The program lasts six weeks, from the first week of July until the second week of August. Brigade members work four days a week for 7.5 hours a day. The team starts on a section of the river and works its way up throughout the week, picking up large debris and small trash, said Michael Marchetti, a third-year brigade member.
After cleaning the riverbank for four or five hours in the morning, members sort their findings into categories: metals, plastics, tires and miscellaneous garbage bags.
Brigade members are paid $14 per hour, which is minimum wage.
“I don’t really care about the pay because with this you just get lost in the job,” said Colin Barry, a first-year member. “Everyone has a good time and that’s what’s important.”
The crew is passionate about its work. Some members have joined the brigade to further their studies.
“When I started school I was an environmental systems major, and I just care a lot about the planet, so that’s how I got interested in it,” said Roma Rositani, a fourth-year member.
Others join the program to spend time outdoors.
“My favorite part is being in the water and with nature,” said Amirrah Skeete, a second-year member. “I can give back to the community by cleaning up.”
Some brigade members compared the collection of trash to a scavenger hunt, finding car jacks, bumpers, telephone booths, 7-foot-long beams, shopping carts, wheel chairs, bowling balls and hundreds of tires, among other trash.
“We’ve had old metal signs, a bunch of tires and one time a thrown-out pistol, which we had to contact the police for,” said Nathan Meglio, a second year member. “If you can think of it, we’ve pulled it out.”
Though the job is hard work, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for the crew.
“I don’t mind having to get dirty, and I like learning about the river and just how many rivers we have in Connecticut,” said Gabrielle Hamer, a second-year member.
Zakary Robushi, the group’s supervisor, said, “I love what I do. Everyone needs motivation. I try to stress that nothing is impossible in this river; we can get everything out.”
Robushi was a brigade member before going into the military. He returned to supervise and said he feels a connection to the area.
“It’s similar in ways to my service, except that here it’s my community,” Robushi said. “I’ve lived by the river since I was 6 and I feel a responsibility to take care of my own backyard.”
The work of the River Brigade emphasizes cooperation and teamwork, said Kevin Zak, the program’s co-supervisor and president of the Naugatuck River Revival Group.
“It’s a six-week program and 40-mile-long classroom,” Zak said. “It’s just an amazing effort. Everyone is passionate. They learn to be independent and they learn to work in a team,.”
As the group pulled a lodged trash can out of the riverbed across from Route 8 during their July 20 trip, they erupted into cheers.
“I can’t think of anything more profound,” Zak said, looking at the brigade members, “and better for the river.”