The constant sight of furniture, blankets and clothing — among a wide assortment of unwanted items — strewn across public spaces in and around downtown Centralia was enough to inspire Steve Kopa to begin spearheading weekly cleanups two years ago.
“You know, I mainly started this because I got tired of looking at it,” Kopa, 52, said when describing how he assembled his first crew of neighbors to spruce up city land at exits 81 and 82 off Interstate 5. “I just want to try to do as much as I can so we can make the city look good (so) people could be proud of our city.”
While the lifelong Centralian usually gathers between six and eight volunteers, on Saturday Kopa was joined by 10 helpers, as they sorted through piles of refuse on a tract of city property between Hayes Lake and the Skookumchuck River.
The area is a popular spot for transients who, Kopa said, leave behind discarded tents, food containers and other disposables regularly.
Kopa clarified that while the transients produce much of the work his litter crews have to tackle every week, tidier groups of homeless people occupy the same areas for longer periods and tend to pick up after themselves.
“The ones who have permanent camps, we stay away from them because we’re not here to displace people,” said Kopa. “What we’re trying to do is concentrate on picking up the trash and litter that is visible to the visitors and the public in high-traffic areas around our city.”
Among the regulars pitching in during Saturday’s gathering was Scott Kimball, who reported finding baby strollers, fast food waste and several bottles containing alcoholic beverages during recent outings.
When specifically commenting on the area behind Centralia’s Goodwill, Kimball said he’ll often come across a slew of open discarded packages.
Others joining Kimball in the cleanup were Karen Replogle and Robert Sudbeck, both of whom agreed that consistency is key in collecting waste, given how quickly it reemerges.
“I do see a difference,” said Replogle. “But what’s irritating is that you clean up one day and the next day, you see trash again that either flew out of someone’s truck or that someone just tossed out their car window.”
She also spoke of the gratification one experiences after an extensive cleanup effort along with mentioning all the exercise she gets in as a contributing member of Kopa’s litter crew.
Kopa himself shared the feelings of joy he derives from playing a role in keeping Centralia clean.
“To me after I do a cleanup, I feel like I’m empowered,” he said. “I feel like I can conquer the world.”
The city of Centralia supplies Kopa’s crews with pinchers, garbage bags and other materials.
Kopa touched on how difficult it can be to recruit locals for his Saturday outings, as many mothers and fathers would prefer using their weekends to spend time with their families. But he also noted instances when as many as 60 residents offered their help, including one cleanup along West Main Street that saw the volunteers fill up a 30-yard dumpster with all kinds of abandoned furniture on Department of Fish and Wildlife property.
Since recently retiring from being a downtown merchant who operated an antique shop and plumbing supplies store, Kopa said he has ramped up his efforts in making local public officials aware of the many areas in need of signage and fencing to ward off litter bugs and curtail illegal dumping.
Going forward, Kopa said he hopes to see more involvement on the part of government agencies in keeping Centralia clean, including the state Department of Transportation and the Department of Ecology.
“I know there’s a lot that needs to be done on a regular basis and sometimes I feel like our little volunteer group isn’t enough. I would like to snap my fingers and — poof — have everything cleared all at once,” he added. “You know, it’s not our responsibility to pick all this up, but we’re doing it.”
Kopa encouraged those who are interested in joining his cause to call him at 360-880-5672. In addition, he also invited people in need of cleaning supplies and/or materials to clean their own property to contact him.