2015-10-01 / Life in Leelanau

The Sparks Adoption

For 24 years, Lake Leelanau couple has rid M-204 of litter. Now they are hanging up their walking sticks.
By Amy Hubbell Of The Enterprise staff


KELLY AND Majean Sparks of Lake Leelanau took their last ‘official’ cleanup walk along M-204 last week. The couple volunteered for the Michigan Department of Transportation’s Adopt- a- Highway program for the past 24 years. LEELANAU COUNTY is one of just three counties in the state to have a waiting list for the Adopt-AHighway program. This map, provided by the Adopt-AHighway regional coordinator, identifies volunteer assignments in Leelanau County. KELLY AND Majean Sparks of Lake Leelanau took their last ‘official’ cleanup walk along M-204 last week. The couple volunteered for the Michigan Department of Transportation’s Adopt- a- Highway program for the past 24 years. LEELANAU COUNTY is one of just three counties in the state to have a waiting list for the Adopt-AHighway program. This map, provided by the Adopt-AHighway regional coordinator, identifies volunteer assignments in Leelanau County. There are 72 “official” reasons for travelers to thank Kelly and Majean Sparks.

The Lake Leelanau couple last month completed their 72nd and final pickup along M-204 for the state Adopt-A-Highway program, retiring after 24 years of volunteering. But they took cleanup of M-204 to a higher level, routinely picking up trash along the stretch beyond the three times set aside by the state.

“When we first called, they didn’t want to give it to us ... they wanted a group,” said Majean, who with Kelly has lived on M-204 east of Lake Leelanau since 1959. “I told them the two of us could do it.”

The volunteer program, initiated by the state Department of Transportation in 1991, is designed to help keep the state’s highway roadsides clean and attractive. Participants adopt both sides of a section of a state highway to clean up three times a year — in April, mid-July and in September.

It took some persuading, but state officials assigned the Sparkses a stretch of the highway between Co. Rd. 637 (Macksey Road) and M-22 in Suttons Bay Township, not far from their home. Soon after, the two-mile stretch on M-204 between 637 and Eagle Highway became available, and they jumped on the new assignment, which takes them directly in front of the Enterprise office and print facility.

“We had asked for it when we began because it goes right by our house, where we walked regularly,” she said.

In the years since, Kelly, who retired from the Traverse City Psychiatric Hospital, and Majean, a homemaker and retired stenographer, have donned their reflective vests and hit the road to clean things up.

And their “official” cleanups don’t include garbage collected on their once-daily walks along M-204.

“We were walking anyway, why wait until the collection to pick it up?” Kelly asked.

Interestingly, the stories collected over their two-plus decades of roadside work are as varied as items left along the roadside.

One spring, Majean saw a glass cylinder sticking out of the snow and picked it up.

“It sure looked like a vase for flowers,” she said.

Eventually the Sparkses learned the “vase” had another purpose. It was a glass water pipe, also known as a bong, used to smoke tobacco as well as marijuana.

“I went to the sheriff’s department and asked if I could keep it,” Majean said.

After finding no evidence that the handsome, iridescent vessel had been used for smoking, a deputy gave her the OK to keep it.

“I use it for dried flowers,” she said.

The couple, with 18 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren, has also found money — ranging from a $20 bill to small change.

“I wish we would have kept track of all the quarters, pennies and nickels we found,” Majean said.

Other, less desirable “finds” made them thankful to have brought rubber gloves with them. They include dirty diapers, new and used condoms, smokeless tobacco tins, and plastic water bottles.

“If there was a deposit on them, kids would pick them up,” Kelly said of water bottles.

Garbage tossed from vehicles and traffic have increased, and the types of material have changed.

For example, the Sparkses noticed several packages from nicotine lozenges on the roadside just as the county government center became a “smoke free” campus.

At another time, tobacco tins became prevalant.

“They were always along the same spot,” Kelly said.

The Sparkses mentioned their finds to others in the neighborhood. And the news must have carried.

“Suddenly, we weren’t finding them anymore,” Kelly said, laughing.

Over the years, Kelly and Majean said they’ve received encouragement from a growing number of motorists passing them along the roadside. Kelly counted 95 cars buzz by him during a one-hour stretch one Sunday.

“We get all sorts of waves and honks,” Majean said. “One man stopped and asked us if we’d like some lemonade. I didn’t have time for that.”

Up until the last couple of years, it wasn’t unusual to see the couple taking morning walks.

Kelly, 85, gave up the ritual a couple years ago. But Majean, 80, continues to walk with her garbage bag in hand, but not for the state program.

Giving up the adopt-a-highway program will free up time for the couple to engage in other activities that include weekly visits with local nursing home patients, Bible study through Immanuel Lutheran Church in Leland, periodic luncheons with other state hospital retirees and weekly trips to Leelanau Sands Casino — not to gamble, but to enjoy and dance to polka music.

They think highly of the program that they’ve been part of since its inception.

“We appreciate the efforts of the state and also all the efforts of our Leelanau County road people,” Kelly wrote in a letter to MDOT. “Working together we have kept our stretch of M-204 pretty clean ... Please don’t litter.”

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