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To mark Earth Day, volunteers gather to clean up Cass Park

April 23, 2011

WOONSOCKET – The litter and brush holed up at Cass Park put up a fierce battle, but in the end they were no match for the good soldiers on Earth Day.
Take Chuck Adelsberger, for example. Normally, he's a mild-mannered environmental engineer for Camp Dresser McKee. Drafted by a core group of Earth Day organizers, he donned jeans and armed himself with a heavy-caliber plastic rake to go after the fallen oak leaves stubbornly entrenched in a thorny mass of wild rose bushes and brambles.
By dint of sheer will and physical exertion, he jerked that papery, dead foliage from its viney fortress, mercilessly shredding, pulling and scraping the mess into submission.
Even after the triumph, Adelsberger's take on the violent encounter was unexpectedly muted.
“I just thought I'd come out and help clean the park,” he said. “It's a nice thing to do.”
There were endless scenes of humiliation for the enemy as a corps of nearly 100 volunteers, many on loan from National Grid, teamed up with city public works crews and ordinary civilians who marked Earth Day by declaring war on trash at Cass Park: Squads of rake-wielding workers scraping brush from a hillside. Heavy equipment hauling debris from a marsh. A volunteer reaching into a brook to pluck out a tin can.
“There's some heavy metal stuff they're pulling out of the river,” said Dave Graves, a spokesman for National Grid. “I”ve seen everything from pipes to folding chairs.”
As the cleanup got under way, it looked like a National Grid convention in the Cass Park parking lot, crowded with bucket trucks and vans bearing the utility company's logo. Graves said Earth Day isn't a holiday for National Grid, but the company offers workers in some areas the choice of reporting to their normal jobs or participating in an Earth Day cleanup event. They still get paid, but the money comes out of stockholder profits – not ratepayer revenues.
This year the company deployed several Earth Day crews in New York, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, but Cass Park “is it for Rhode Island,” said Graves.
In addition to the manpower, the company dispatched two dump trucks, two backhoes and two Bobcats to assist in the cleanup. A number of company tree-trimmers were on hand to manicure greenery.
Among the volunteers was Yvette Ayotte – aka “The Park Lady.” Afflicted with a painful bout of fibromyalgia some nine years ago, Ayotte's self-prescribed therapy was a daily walk in the park. Her commiserations with nature were marked by encounters with waterfowl, fish, turtles – and lots of litter.
Some of it was pretty nasty. “Diapers,” she says. “That's one of the things that gets thrown away in here a lot.”
Of course, it's all illegal. Catching the culprits is another matter. Cass Park is rather secluded, and it's difficult to police because much of it is passive recreation land that's inhospitable to motor vehicles.
Soon, Ayotte's daily treks were dedicated not just to self-rehabilitation, but park rehabilitation.
“To see somebody else doing it instead of me, that's a switch,” Ayotte said. “I love it.”
A radio station once rewarded Ayotte with a Caribbean vacation for making herself the park's unpaid caretaker, but yesterday Mayor Leo T. Fontaine paid her tribute with something that will last: A tree, adorned with a permanent marker lauding her contributions.
The plaque says: “In recognition of outstanding volunteer service – Go Green Award 2011 – Yvette Ayotte.” Go Green is a fledgling company from Grafton, Mass., that provides cities with special sidewalk trash bins designed to encourage pedestrians to separate recyclables in public areas.
As a snow-white egret watched from afar, the river birch was planted alongside the brook that babbles out of Cass Pond during a ceremony mid-way through the cleanup Friday.
City Councilman Bill Schneck, who took a break from work to join the cleanup crew, said he was surprised by how spiffy Cass Park looked even before the volunteers got a crack at it.
For that, he said, Ayotte surely deserves much of the credit.
“It's awesome,” he said. “She walks around the grounds and picks up trash every day.”
Among those helping organize the cleanup for the city were Arianne Pare – Fontaine's secretary – and Solid Waste Superintendent Michael Debroisse. National Grid's Marisa Albanese, a community investment coordinator, and Mary Smith, executive assistant, did much of the legwork for the utility.
With tennis courts, two ballfields, a playground, a jogging track, a trout-stocked pond and large swaths of raw land, Cass Park may be one of the most underutilized tracts of recreational land in the city. It straddles a large swath of land roughly bounded by Woonsocket High School, Cass Avenue and Newland Avenue.
But the Earth Day cleanup is just the latest example of how the city is shifting more resources to Cass Park in hopes of restoring it as a central player in the city's park system. On Thursday, the city announced that it had awarded a contract to Central Nurseries of Johnston for the second phase of a $1 million makeover of the park that began last fall.

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