The Story behind Adopt-a-Highway

James “Bobby” Evans was a young highway engineer in East Texas in the 1980s. One of his jobs was keeping 3600 miles of highway in good repair. For thirty years he had given hundreds of talks and film presentations against littering. But nothing seemed to work. As he drove the highways, he was dismayed to see the roadside littered with beer cans, fast food cartons, empty cement bags, old tires, and even disposable diapers. At that time Texas was spending nearly $25 million a year to collect such trash, and the cost was going up annually.

That’s when Evans got an idea. He challenged civic clubs to adopt one of the highways and to pick up the litter on a regular basis. His idea received little enthusiasm. Later when he spoke with a co-worker, Billy Black, they came up with an additional idea: why not give credit to the volunteer organization by posting a sign with the groups’ name on it? Thus was born the Adopt-a-Highway program that eventually spread to 49 states (Vermont’s program is called “Green Up”), Puerto Rico, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan.

Here’s how it works. Volunteer groups make a two-year commitment to clean a segment of the highway a certain number of times a year. The Highway Department provides safety training, reflective vests, and trash bags. The department also picks up the bags of litter afterwards. Each volunteer group is acknowledged with a bold sign marking their adopted segment of highway.

But some groups or organizations did not have the personnel to pick up litter. In addition, some highways were just too dangerous for “amateurs” to do the cleanup. Thus, Sponsor-a-Highway came into being. In this program, organizations sponsor a segment of a highway, that is, they pay professionals to pick up the litter. In return, the organization gets a nice sign acknowledging their commitment to cleaning up our roads.

The Sponsor-a-Highway program appealed to companies and organizations for it provided low cost advertising for them.  Billboards cost thousands of dollars. The Sponsor-a-Highway sign costs only a few hundred. Someone even figured out the cost for advertising per 1,000 views: the daily newspaper was $28; broadcast TV was $22.30; online advertising was $13.00; radio was $7.80. But Sponsor-a-Highway advertising cost only $.20 per 1,000 views! In addition, the signs cast the organizations in a positive light. The signs were good for Public Relations.

There have been a few “speed bumps” along the way. In one state, the KKK adopted a segment of a highway. Many people were outraged when their sign appeared. In fact, the sign was vandalized several times. What could be done legally? The highway department decided to dedicate that highway to Rosa Parks, the famous Civil Rights figure. When her sign was posted, the KKK stopped cleaning up the highway, so their sign was removed.

Researchers say that the Adopt-a-Highway program has actually reduced the volume of trash along our highways. They say that once you pick up litter yourself or even see other people picking it up, you are less likely to throw trash along the roadside. The program also demonstrates the power of two individuals (Evans and Black) to come up with a creative solution to a serious problem. It also gives evidence of how many ordinary citizens are accepting responsibility for the beauty of our common home.

A beautiful highway in Alberta, Canada. (Pixabay)

Does anything in particular in this reflection speak to you? If so, what?

Have you ever participated in the Adopt-a-Highway program or a similar project to beautiful our common home? If so, could you briefly share your story with us?

I chose a song by Michael Card for today. It’s called “Joy in the Journey.” It celebrates the “wonder and wildness” of our earthly journey, a journey made more beautiful by the love we share for one another and for our common home.

We’d love to hear from you. Please respond below!

PS: A special thank you to everyone who attended our Advent day of prayer at the Marillac Center in Leavenworth, Kansas this past Saturday. I enjoyed meeting all of you—especially readers of my blog. (A few of them even crossed the Missouri River to attend!) And thank you to all the readers who prayed for this event. My next presentation is at St. Paschal Church, Highland Heights, OH on Monday, December 11 from 7:00 – 8:00 pm. The talk is entitled “Unwrapping the Gifts of Advent: Courage, Love, and Hope.”

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  1. Donnamarie on December 4, 2017 at 10:10 am

    I love your posts …they always make me think. Today you made me laugh out loud as well.

  2. Nora on December 4, 2017 at 11:51 am

    I lived in Venice, FL for thirteen years and participated in their Adopt a Road, and our subdivision adopted a park. A completely volunteer group called Keep Venice Beautiful works with the city to make our parks, trails and beaches neat and clean. Volunteering helps you meet new people, and you feel so good when you see the results of your hard work.

  3. Beverly on December 4, 2017 at 12:58 pm

    Our boy scouts adopted a highway. I loved getting out there with my boys and listening to their comments about what actually got thrown out. At the end of the pick up, we always shared what was the most unusual time picked up for the day. It was great for the boys…I bet that very few of those boys litter today. Those are such good memories…thanks for bringing them to mind today.

  4. Ginger Haug on December 4, 2017 at 1:07 pm

    Good Morning Sister Mellanie! Thank You for the music, really beautiful and touched my heart.

  5. Sr. Regina Hlavac on December 4, 2017 at 5:01 pm

    I always look forward to reading anything you write. What a gift you are to us. Happy Advent.

  6. Tom on December 4, 2017 at 9:26 pm

    A good reminder that great programs that we can take for granted often begin with the concern and tenacity of one or two strongly committed persons.

  7. Carol L on December 4, 2017 at 11:03 pm

    Hi, Sr. Melannie! Thank you for your inspiring, refreshing and thought stimulating blogs, always with the perfect musical compliment! Eric and I really enjoyed our day with you at the Advent Retreat in Leavenworth! Your homily at the Mass that followed the retreat was wonderful! The sweet Sisters of Charity sang like the angels! Thank you for the amazing start of our Advent! Eric said to tell you congratulations—the Ohio State Buckeyes earned it! God bless you! You are in our prayers!

  8. Patty Davidson on December 5, 2017 at 11:50 am

    Hi Melannie, A little off the subject: I have started rereading your book, Gracious Goodness, one gift per day.
    Thank you. Each day seems to fit so perfectly.

  9. Rosemarie on December 7, 2017 at 2:58 pm

    This story reminds me of a beloved priest, Father Mahoney, who often reminded us in his homilies that one person can make a difference. He made a difference and was a blessing to many lives. Thanks for the reminder. We all can make a difference.

    Rosemarie, Harrisburg, PA.

    (I’m new to sunflower seeds. I found you in “Living Faith”.)

  10. Melannie Svoboda SND on December 7, 2017 at 3:40 pm

    Thanks again for all your responses! How nice that some of you actually participate in programs to beautify our “common ground.”… And yes, the power of a single individual or two to do something good and worthwhile… And I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Leavenworth and all the people I met there… And it’s always good to welcome a new reader of my blog… And my sympathy to you, Eric, on Wisconsin’s loss to “my” Ohio State! Thanks again! Sr. Melannie

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