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One woman's mission to clean up Kentucky

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In the dead of Winter, her truck nicknamed “Maroonie” immediately attracts attention. There’s a kayak strapped down on the truck bed, and signs on the truck that say, “A cleaner Kentucky.”

Whitney Lewis pulls her maroon, 1998 Ford pickup truck into a boat ramp area at Cedar Creek Lake in Lincoln County.

It’s an unusually warm January day of 50 degrees sandwiched between days of more chilly weather. Ideal for Lewis as she prepares her kayak for the water with a couple of large bags.

“Rope and headlamps and dry clothes and first aid kit. There's a lot of stuff in here. You just never know what might happen when you're out there so try to come prepared.”

Lewis puts on a life jacket and adjusts her paddle as she pushes the kayak into the water. She’s dressed in a pink winter coat, blue jeans, and knee-high mud boots. Lewis paddles for a few minutes before pulling up to the bank and tying up. She’s on a mission to pick up litter scattered in the nearby woods. It all began last April when she did a Facebook challenge.

“I could have never dreamt that it would be as big as it is now. You know, I started out with an Earth Day goal, and one month to get 500 bags, and we exceeded that goal to 750. And now to think that we're at 11,000. Plus, I never would have dreamt that, that it's my calling. I've totally found my calling in life. You know, it's my sole purpose. I honestly believe that now. Did I know that when it started? No. But I do now.”

Yes, one person, Whitney Lewis, says last year she filled 11,000 small grocery bags with trash from Kentucky rivers and lakes.

“I started with grocery bags, because everybody has an abundance of them and they're free. So that's how it started was me just taking a bag or two in my pocket. And now a bag or two is not enough.” At each location, Lewis attaches all the bags of trash to her kayak, and paddles it back to her truck.

Lewis says it’s become a full-time job. She’s also an insurance agent and the mom of two daughters.

Asked if she picked up litter at an early age, Lewis recalls, “I can remember going to Texas Roadhouse with my parents, and seeing nuts all over the ground and just feeling like it would be satisfying to clean them up. You know? Actually, when I was a child, my dad had us clean out our garbage bin, about once a month, okay. And when he would tell us that this weekend, we were cleaning out the garbage bin. I mean, like, I would do anything in my power to get out of it. I hated it. And now look at me, it's just the strangest thing. How ironic is life.”

Lewis says she’s filled bags of trash at Lake Cumberland, Nolin River, and Green River Lake just to name a few places.

What kind of reaction does she get from people? “Here at Cedar Creek Lake, I came in one summer night. And there were guys out here fishing. And I had probably 40 bags on my boat. And this guy walked up to me. And he said I'm so sorry. I said for what and he handed me a water bottle. He said I just threw that down before you got up here. So doing it with love in your heart and not complaining about it can change the way people think. You know, you're not trying to put them down. You're not being judgmental. You're just out here trying to perform a service through love. And I think that people see that, you know, that's what changes their way of thinking.”

To get the word out about her cleanup efforts Lewis posts pictures and encourages others to help on her Facebook page called “Sun KYst sticks and stones.” She also has a GoFundMe to help support her travel and time. Her new goal for 2024 is a total of 25,000 bags of litter.

“I think about the future, I would like to take it to a national level, be amazing for other states to do this as well. That's my goal is to go to a national level. And I also have some other things in the works. For one, I want to start talking at some schools, you know, because that's where it starts is with our children, you know, and, yeah, I want to expand. Absolutely I do.”

Lewis is determined to clean up Kentucky. It’s her passion. “It's a power that's much greater than me. And I'm honored and grateful to be that vessel to be honest with you. I mean, whatever it is, it's made it to where I absolutely love going out and cleaning up these places. Like it's all I ever want to do. You know, it's not normal, that's for sure. But the only thing I can say is it's a higher power. something bigger than me.”

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Sam is a veteran broadcast journalist who is best known for his 34-year career as a News Anchor at WKYT-TV in Lexington. Sam retired from the CBS affiliate in 2021.
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