Twelve years ago, Kevin Zak was brushing his teeth, looking out his window onto the Naugatuck River. The yellow plastic bag caught his eye.
It had clung to the river bank all winter long, gnawing at him. Soon he was organizing groups to pull trash, including 32 shopping carts, out of the river. During one cleanup, he met his future wife.
But it was a massive sewage spill in 2017 from an explosion at Waterbury’s Water Pollution Control Facility that turned Zak into a full-time activist. The spill dumped five million gallons of raw sewage into the river, and Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary approached Zak, by then the executive director of the Naugatuck River Revival Group, to oversee a river cleanup project with youth and officers from the Waterbury Police Activity League (PAL).
Officer Querino “Q” Maia, a 20-year veteran of the force, teamed with Zak as the project coordinator to lead daily river cleanups with 14 youth aged 16-20 who applied for summer jobs with the “River Brigade”.
Said Maia, “Honestly, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. How was I going to keep these kids safe? This had never been done before.”
Zak and Maia spent the past two summers organizing the youth in cleanup efforts. A grant from Connecticut Community Foundation funded wages and equipment in 2019, while local businesses and Waterbury and Naugatuck mayors lent their strong support.
Workdays began at 7 a.m. at Waterbury PAL with River Brigade members donning waders, piling into vehicles and riding to a new section of the river, where they used rafts, kayaks and cranes—often with assistance from municipal workers—to haul to shore an eye-popping array of junk, from washing machines to old trolley tracks.
Fears were common when the summers began (sharks were one of many, quickly dispelled by Zak and Maia), but confidence grew.
Said Zak, “It’s not just physical labor at all. They have to think on their feet and problem- solve and think about their own safety, too. The river is a 40-mile classroom.”
Zak pointed to a time when the teens dragged a 150-pound ball across the river to attach it to cables in order for a crane to remove large machinery. “Literally on their own,” said Zak, they figured out a way to combine pry bars, cinder blocks and boards to move metal and beams in the river.
“Nothing is impossible. All that steel—they got it out. The empowerment of these kids, realizing that they can do anything, that’s what I think they learn,” said Zak. The river is now cleaner and the young people have new skills, an appreciation for natural resources, and friends for life, he noted, and some brigade participants have since chosen to pursue careers related to biology or the environment.
According to Maia, “There’s a big educational part of all this…We train the kids how to check water levels, weather conditions, and how trash gets into storm drains and into the river and can harm wildlife. And we also go to aquariums and museums so it’s not all work.”
Maia reflected, “Kids often think that police officers are no good, that they just mess with people. But when I’m working with them that goes out the window. Now they see that I’m almost a mentor to them, and that’s rewarding.”
Waterbury PAL and the Naugatuck River Revival Group were recognized with a 2019 Trustee Fund Award for their innovative and collaborative work in creating the River Brigade. The award is an honor created by generous current and former trustees of Connecticut Community Foundation to recognize exceptional innovation and collaboration that benefits communities in Greater Waterbury and the Litchfield Hills. Each award includes a grant from the Trustee Fund to further the organization’s work.
With the grant dollars, Zak and Maia are eyeing new water testing equipment and a metal detector, because, they said, “We’re not done.”