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Chicago River Day

Principle: You are never finished

By Meg MacIver

February, 2009

The Friends of the Chicago River are always working to make our river greener, and not just on St. Patrick’s Day.

 In 2009, the Friends hosted the 17th Annual Chicago River Day, a festival of service and celebration, when more than 4,000 volunteers come together to care for the river.  Through hands-on work, participants come to know the river as much more than just a scenic stretch of water between skyscrapers.  It becomes a place to play and relax with friends: in short, another great public space Chicago has to treasure. 

Chicago River Day is just one of the many stewardship events the Friends host every year.  It’s a vital part of the organization’s mission to “improve, protect and foster the vitality of the Chicago River for the plant, animal and human communities,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River.

Friends of the Chicago River

“Chicago River Day is really meant to introduce people to the river and show them it is accessible,” said Frisbie.  “Our goal is to engage people and show them how they can affect change.”

The day is made up of two parts: a morning of hard work and an afternoon of fellowship and food.  From 9:00 a.m. to noon, volunteers report to one of more than 60 sites along the river, where clean-up and restoration efforts are directed by local site captains.  After hours of collecting trash and replacing invasive species with native flowers and plants, volunteers gather at a park along the river for an afternoon picnic.

“This day, and especially the picnic, is a chance to recognize that each of us is a part of a big group working towards the same thing,” explained Frisbie. “People who work all year on improving the southwest part of the river, for example, might not realize that people in the north have the same concerns.  The picnic gives volunteers a sense of the volume of people involved in caring for the river year round.”

Indeed, the Friends know preserving and protecting the river is a never-ending project and, throughout the year, they facilitate countless opportunities for stewardship.  The group assists local community groups in managing the more than 25 permanent sites along the river, in Lake and Cook counties, where volunteers frequently gather to take care of their stretch of the river. 

Friends of the Chicago River

The Friends provide the equipment such as gloves and bags that volunteers need to clean up the river.  “We take care of permits and liability waivers, too,” said Frisbie, “but it’s the communities that do the real work.” 

The work volunteers do during River Day and throughout the year has made a big impact on the river’s health.  “Until a few years ago, the event was called the ‘Chicago River Rescue Day,’” explained Frisbie, “but we dropped the ‘rescue’ part as the river continues to improve.  It’s amazing: now after River Day people are saying, ‘I saw a fox!!’ not, ‘I saw rusty car scraps’!”

Because of these stewardship activities, the Chicago River has come to be seen as a kind of vibrant but fragile place where the whole city can come together.  “Really, the river belongs to everyone in Chicago,” said Frisbie, “and we all have a right for it to be clean and healthy and accessible.”

The 17th Annual Chicago River Day took place on May 9, 2009.  To participate in or sponsor future events, please visit