COLUMBIA — Mike Heimos drew a big golden fish with chalk on the floor of the Douglass Park shelter with a crowd of kids around him.
“If you do not pick up trash here, fish will suffer from polluted water.”
For those who are interested in helping Heimos in his mission to keep Columbia clean, call him at 874-7250. The next cleanup event will be Aug. 11.
Anyia Osbourne, 10, drew a pink fish on the ground and wrote: "No dumping." Heimos told them that dumping waste into water threatens the lives of fish. When she was done drawing, Anyia walked up to Heimos and asked for tools so she could help clean the park.
Heimos grabbed trash-collecting tools from his car and handed them out to the group of child volunteers. When they saw the tools, more children circled around Heimos and asked to help.
“Put your gloves on, get your trash bag and go get trash,” Heimos said to 14-year-old Josh Tabor.
Josh picked up a discarded comb after he put his gloves on. Trash is not hard to find in the park — cigarette butts, plastic bags and bottles are everywhere. He used his hands to pick up a handful of cigarette butts from the ground and put them into the red bag he received from Heimos.
It was not the first time he helped clean the park — he asks to help every time he sees Heimos.
“He taught me the importance of keeping the earth clean,” Josh said. “I think it is really cool.”
Heimos, the stormwater educator for the city’s Public Works Department, is dedicated to keeping the city litter-free while educating residents about the importance of recycling. He organizes various trash collecting programs throughout the city, such as cleaning streams, parks, trails and any other place that needs to be beautified. On Wednesdays at noon, Heimos goes to Douglass Park and encourages children to pick up trash with him.
“He always comes to the park more than once a week, even though I know he's very busy every day,” Cindy Mustard, a volunteer in the park, said. “Mike is so good with kids. They just love him.”
Eleven other children waited in line to get trash pick-up supplies from Heimos, which consisted of plastic gloves, red trash bags and pick-up clamps. Then, they walked together and picked up as much trash as they could.
“I just want to help the Earth,” Anyia said as she picked up a candy bar wrapper. “I want to keep this place clean, and I don’t want people littering.”
Heimos wears all kinds of hats. Educating children is just one of them.
Heimos spends most of his time communicating with people and teaching them the importance of sustainability. He not only talks to children, but also seniors, construction workers, college students, people from other countries and people with disabilities. He met more than 20,000 people last year alone.
“This is my life,” Heimos said. “I feel like I am the luckiest guy in the world. I have a fun job. Life is always different every day. I feel a sense of accomplishment every night I go back home.”
Heimos carries the trash pick-up tongs with him every day in his car trunk and tries to talk to people about cleanup volunteer programs to get more people involved.
“I'm trying to expand my program, and I want to touch all sides of Columbia,” Heimos said as he looked through the photos he took at Douglass Park.
Heimos takes photos at almost every event he organizes or speaks at, and he uploads the pictures to Facebook so people can share their sense of accomplishment after they finish a cleanup.
More than 70 volunteers came to an event at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial at Battle Garden — most of them college students. Heimos gave a safety orientation and briefly explained the importance of litter cleanup and basic guidelines.
“Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration, and be careful with something that has sharp edges,” he told the group of volunteers. “Safety first.”
The volunteers picked up rubbish bags, cigarette butts, candy wrappers, tires and a myriad of other cast-offs. They collected more than 256 pounds of litter in two hours.
“Many people don’t realize that litter and trash on surface streets drains straight to our creeks and streams. All storm drains on city, county and neighborhood streets drain directly to city waterways,” Heimos said. “Volunteers are needed to help collect and pick up trash and debris from our waterways to help keep our drinking water and local wildlife safe and healthy.”
Parks are not the only places Heimos goes. He leads different groups of volunteers throughout the year to pick up litter along city streets, trails, streams and other public places.
“I never worry about finding trash. Trash is everywhere,” Heimos said. “I wish one day volunteers will complain to me that they cannot find trash. Unfortunately, it never happens.”
Sometimes, Heimos finds interesting things in the trash. Once he found a TV set and a shopping cart when he led a group volunteers to clean up local creeks. More often than not, he finds money.
“I can find money all the time,” Heimos said. “I don’t understand that; I always put my money in my pocket.”
Although any type of trash is detrimental to waterways, plastics are a real problem, as they will never biodegrade. Daily appliances are also very harmful, he said.
“Think about all the components of the TV set, such as the plastics, the mercury and the metals, are all in our waterway,” Heimos said. “The best thing you can do in your everyday life is just don’t litter.”
Heimos welcomes anyone who is interested in helping clean up local areas.
“I meet people from all over the world,” he said. “I feel like I am educating the world.”
Heimos encourages anyone who wants to join litter pick-up activities to contact him. The next cleanup event will be Aug. 11, and Heimos can be reached at 874-7250.
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.