With a sense of community pride, Willmar woman spends hours daily picking up trash
She's dressed in purple and blue, a flimsy ball cap sitting loosely atop her short hair, the thick rubber souls and discolored laces of her sneakers showing signs of wear.
She’s dressed in purple and blue, a flimsy ball cap sitting loosely atop her short hair, the thick rubber souls and discolored laces of her sneakers showing signs of wear.
But at 72, there’s still plenty of spring to Frances Van Heuveln’s step.
Three varying bags hang from her left arm, above the elbow: one for plastics, one for cans, one for paper and the like.
The day’s load is light.
“It’s a good sign,” she says through the smile that perpetually lines her ruddy cheeks. “People are paying attention.”
For those who live in or commute through the northwest quadrant of Willmar, the sight of this teeny lady bobbing between parked cars and around bushes and hedges is likely recurrent.
Each day but Sunday - reserved for church and dancing, “and I never miss those” - from 7 to 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. till dusk, Van Heuveln walks a 1.5-mile pattern of streets beginning at her apartment on Lake Avenue Northwest, picking up trash and other discarded items.
“I guess I just like the community to look nice,” she said during a hurried stop Sept. 30 at Bria’s Playground along Ella Avenue Northwest, where moments before she picked up discarded bottle caps and a bright pink capsule about an inch in diameter that seemed to momentarily fascinate her. “I’m an old farm girl. I don’t do sitting still well; I need to be on the move. This keeps me busy, and when I see the streets clean it makes me smile.”
Van Heuveln began her diversion in 2013 after downsizing from a country home outside New London, where she’d lived alone since her husband’s passing 25 years ago.
She promptly noticed a number of discarded bottles and cans in areas of the neighborhood, particularly in the vicinity of the rental properties. Erked, she began cleaning the street.
From there, her route simply expanded.
Most days she follows a line west from her home to where the street dead-ends.
There, she turns back, heads north on 13th Street Northwest to Ella Avenue Northwest, zig-zagging up and down each neighboring boulevard until she reaches Eighth Street Northwest. She then works her way south toward the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway tracks, heads west down Gorton Avenue Northwest and back home. She crushes the cans for donation with other recyclables to the Kandiyohi County Recycling Center on the other side of town.
She offers a chortle when asked if she has stumbled on a bauble or knickknack worth keeping, but beams when recalling the $20 bill and a number of $1 bills she has found.
“Ah, you betcha, I keep those,” she says.
And the neighborhood?
She says it has a more respectable look these days.
“When people see me and talk to me, I think they appreciate what I’m doing and so they try harder themselves,” she says. “I had a young man roll his window down the other day to talk to me by the tracks. He handed me an empty plastic bottle, which is better than him tossing it in the street. People are usually pretty nice. Though I did have one guy tell me not to come near his property. I told him I was simply trying to help clean up the trash that had blown onto the street. He just glared at me and left. He couldn’t say nothin‘. I ain’t been shot yet, so I guess I must be doing something right.”