For Alex Cruz, cleaning up glass, trash and bones from a local stream meant more than just community service.

“We are a minority group and we just want to show that minority groups do help out the community,” Cruz said. “We’re just trying to make it a better place.”

Cruz, an eighth grader from Skyline Middle School, helped clean up Blacks Run on Saturday along with about 25 other members from Skyline’s 8th Grade Academy, a group that focuses on the development of young Latino and African-American males.

Fellow eighth grader Harley Gardinet saw the immediate effects of the pollution in the stream.

“Since we’ve been out here, I’ve already seen two snakes die and another snake not living healthily,” Gardinet said. “One of the snakes died — it was cut in half … it was a hard moment for me because I don’t like seeing animals die for a little cause.”

Although Cruz and Gardinet said they looked forward to other volunteer opportunities they also agreed the community should be more engaged.

“We just wish that more people would help out,” Cruz said. “Maybe start like, a snowball effect, just more and more people helping out the community — it’s the small parts.”

But Wes Runion, stream health coordinator for the city of Harrisonburg, said the efforts made on Saturday are part of a much bigger picture.

According to Runion, Blacks Run is part of a system of natural waterways including larger rivers like the Shenandoah River and the Potomac River, which empty into the Chesapeake Bay.

“We’re a headwater, so we’re the start of the Chesapeake Bay,” he said. “It’s our duty not to send our trash or pollutants downstream for our neighboring communities to deal with, so we have responsibilities.”

Runion added that Blacks Run is an “impaired waterway,”one that’s regularly polluted with high levels of the bacteria E. coli, which comes from human and animal waste as well as petroleum products.

He added that he’s grateful JMU students and community members are stepping up to improve Blacks Run’s condition.

“It’s a new way of thinking,” Runion said. “People are getting more involved in environmental measures because we can see our direct impact on this.”

Runion said that about 200 JMU students and other community members participated in the 16th annual Blacks Run Cleanup Day. Volunteers were divided into teams and spread out along the 8.67 mile-long stream.

Many JMU students were sent downtown through The Big Event, an annual event sponsored by Student Greater Madison and the Student Government Association that sends hundreds of JMU students out in the Harrisonburg area to do community service projects.

According to Truman Horwitz, a senior public policy and administration major and director of Student Greater Madison, about 670 students signed up to volunteer and about 200 of them were assigned to aid in Blacks Run CleanUp Day efforts.

“We see this as a great way to be a citizen of Harrisonburg,” Horwtiz said. “We as students spend about nine months in Harrisonburg. This is pretty much our home and we want to treat our home well.”

Many of the students were sent downtown to clean the streets of trash and debris. Freshman public policy and administration major Matt Gatti and his team were assigned to clean up a portion of East Market street.

“It’s a lack of respect toward the environment and the community,” Gatti said. “I wish there were more opportunities like this.”

Gatti thinks that it’s important for students to get involved in the community. “We’re not just here to go to school,” Gatti said. “We’re living here. We should be involved.”

Robert Jennings, grassroots field specialist from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, regularly comes to Harrisonburg to advocate for cleaner waterways. Jennings said pollutants erode and degrade the habitat for fish and other animals that live along the stream.

“All the little critters — they require cleaner, more rocky-based streams,” Jennings said. “All this dirt that’s washing down the soil that’ll literally smother them. That creates poorer water quality, lower visibility, lower dissolved oxygen — these are all these things that these critters need.”

Jennings said the poor condition of Blacks Run further pollutes the already unsafe Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, and especially the Chesapeake Bay. According to Jennings, the Chesapeake Bay and its waterways are already dangerously polluted and aren’t safe to fish or swim in.

Currently, the Chesapeake Bay has a score of about 30 out of 100 in water quality and health. Ratings are based on the amount of animal and plant life and oxygen in the water.

“We need people to speak up,” Jennings said. “Water has no voice in our political system. We need to speak up to our legislators, to our elected officials and let them know that we value clean water.”

Contact IJ Chan at