In the bag
It's no secret heroes walk among us.
And they really do clean up unsavory elements.
"Whoever thought we would be honored for picking up garbage," said Gresham resident Carol Nielsen. "We're just old ladies out walking the streets."
But to the Gresham Early Risers Kiwanis Club, the efforts of Nielsen and her fellow bag ladies — Dorothy Douglas and Leslie Radke — to clean up sidewalks around Gresham's downtown core area qualify them as heroes.
So over breakfast on Friday, June 23, the club presented the three women with their Every Day Hero Award.
"The idea of a hero is (someone) just doing something without our expecting anything in return," explained Dick Vaughn, secretary for the Early Risers. "This wasn't these ladies' job and they weren't getting paid to do it. They just saw something that should be done but wasn't and did it."
Nielsen, Douglas and Radke, all retired business leaders who volunteer with several charitable organizations, took up walking as a form of exercise two years ago. Originally, their early morning treks meandered along the Springwater Trail. The ladies eventually took to the streets around Main Avenue, however, when safety along the trail became a concern.
"Dorothy sat down on a bench to rest one day and Leslie and I kept walking about another quarter of a mile," Nielsen said. "There was a bend in the trail not far from the bench and we couldn't see her. We just didn't feel safe leaving her there with people wandering around."
The trio started meeting in the parking lot behind the Gresham History Museum on Fourth Street and Main Avenue for their 2-mile jaunt. All equally familiar with downtown Gresham, Nielsen said observing the city in the early-morning hours was eye-opening.
"There's always stuff on the street," Nielsen said. "One day Leslie said, 'We should pick this stuff up.' So the next time we walked, we started picking up up trash and putting it in our Safeway shopping bags. Then one day, a city worker saw us and offered us those "picker-upper" things. They brought us some of those, and now we have big green bags we carry. We probably fill those bags two or three times during our walks."
Health reasons forced Douglas to give up the morning outing shortly after the trio formed. But three days a week, Nielsen and Radke can still be seen around town takin' out the trash.
"The only time we don't walk is if there's ice on the ground," Nielsen said. "But we've got full-on rain gear and everything."
Nielsen and Radke admit they've pretty much seen — and picked up — everything. Radke recalls the morning the pair watched Gresham Police scream down Main Avenue in hot pursuit of a speeding car. Nielsen told of the day they found a wallet full of credit cards that she turned into a nearby business for safe keeping until the owner could be notified.
"In the last two years, we've picked up everything you can imagine," Nielsen said. "Clothes, needles, blankets, beer bottles, full meals in take-out containers. It's amazing what people toss away and what we find."
A couple months ago, the Gresham Early Risers Kiwanis Club witnessed the women, clad in rain gear and clutching their "picker-uppers" and green garbage bags. Honoring them for their good deed was a 'no-brainer,' said Vaughn.
"There are all kinds of people out there doing something because it's just a good idea," he said. "We don't recognize people as much as we should these days."
Nielsen, Radke and Douglas demurred at the notion of being labeled heroes. But picking up garbage, it seems, is only part of the trash they clean up.
"We're too busy solving all the problems of the world while we walk," Nielsen said, laughing. "It's so good to get out in the morning, when the air is fresh. We get our exercise and do a little community service while we're at it. It works and it's fun."