By Haley Wisniewski —
For over 15 years, Melissa Rohm has enjoyed kayaking recreationally in rural, woodsy areas.
In 2011, she and her husband decided to paddle in Downtown Pittsburgh and were amazed by all of the trash there was in the rivers.
Since then, they founded “Paddle Without Pollution,” a nonprofit organization that focuses on eliminating trash and debris in Western Pennsylvania’s rivers and lakes by kayaks and canoes, and since their first clean-up have gotten rid of over 60 tons of trash from the region’s watersheds.
“We just couldn’t believe how much garbage was on the shores and in the water… It was pretty depressing and there was no way we could pick it up all by ourselves. So I said to David, my husband, offhandedly, I said ‘well we should organize a clean-up’… a couple weeks later he came home and said ‘we’re a nonprofit called ‘Paddle Without Pollution’ and we’re having our first cleanup in September,’” said Rohm.
Pittsburgh-raised Melissa Rohm has participated in a countless number of activities and has hardly taken her surroundings for granted. From birding to gardening, her hobbies embody the passion she has for the environment, which is further represented in the work she and her husband do with “Paddle Without Pollution.” Along with these interests, Rohm is a photographer and filmmaker. She and her husband take all of the photos seen on the “Paddle Without Pollution” website and social media, and also make films about the work they do. One of the most recent projects they have done was creating and documenting the Presque Isle Water Trail in Erie, PA.
Presque Isle Water Trail Film
Provided by Paddle Without Pollution
Kayaking has led Melissa Rohm and her volunteers to finding hundreds of unusual items. In the waters, she has found things from laptops to suitcases she was too afraid to open up.
One afternoon, Rohm was paddling in Chartiers Creek in Carnegie. When she went to retrieve a beer can out of the water, she suddenly realized she was not alone. Peering out of the creek was an alligator.
“Something caught the corner of my eye and at first I thought it was a statue or something- and then it blinked at me,” said Rohm, who became amazed by what she was looking at.
When paddling out in Chartier’s Creek, Treasurer of “Paddle Without Pollution” Jackson Shoup, found an old stretcher in the water, which he describes as one of the strangest items he has found. After fishing it out, he joked with the other volunteers that it was from the morgue and used to carry dead bodies.
As president of “Paddle Without Pollution,” Melissa Rohm and her husband David organize all of the events and coordinate getting all of the volunteers together. Rohm has been described by her volunteers as a hardworking and passionate person who is very knowledgeable about the work she does.
“When you go with Melissa, you have fun. She is such a sweet lady… and she is passionate about what we do… If anybody needs anything at these meetings or cleanups, she’s the first one to raise her hand, the first one to be there, and first one to help,” said Matt Mainhart, a member of “Paddle Without Pollution.”
Starting “Paddle Without Pollution,” Melissa and David Rohm opened the doors to new ways of getting to trash in the waters. Taking kayaks and canoes allows the volunteers to access litter that cannot be reached on land. It is also environmentally one of the safest ways to get to the trash without further polluting the air by not taking, for instance, engine-powered boats.
Laura Essel, a member of “Paddle Without Pollution,” said, “I’d describe [Melissa and David] as very passionate, good-hearted souls that care very much. And they are spreading awareness and creating awareness about the litter problem because a lot of people don’t even realize how bad it is unless you are kayaking- you can’t really get to all these places unless you are on a boat.”
Beginning in April of every year, “Paddle Without Pollution” members hit the waters ready to gather as much litter as they can. At their first event in Chartier’s Creek, they successfully removed 1900 pounds of illegally dumped litter and other trash. Other events were held all around the Pittsburgh area like Downtown and at North Park Lake. Though most of “Paddle Without Pollution’s” events are within Western Pennsylvania, they have done projects in the Susquehanna River and in Cape May, NJ. In the future, they would like to eventually have chapters around the United States.
“There’s plenty to do in Western Pennsylvania, but eventually we would like to have chapters around the country,” said Rohm.
Each year, they get about 300 volunteers of all ages and get paddlers that range from very experienced to people that have never been on a boat before. Rohm strives to continue her strong volunteer base and succeeds.
“She’s inspirational. Because it’s an all-volunteer organization, you have to be able to inspire the people to come back and do it…[Melissa and David] came up with this idea of doing it… and it’s been very successful, I believe,” said Shoup.