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North Bay Spirit Award winner works tirelessly for clean water, less trash in Russian River

The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit Award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate, go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit

Crusader Chris Brokate mobilizes the homeless and other volunteers to keep trash out of the Russian River.

Robin Factor has a classic image that sums up her friend, Chris Brokate.

He’s in the back of a canoe, sharing the vessel with an assortment of junk — lawn furniture, a giant piece of carpeting, six tires.

A grinning Brokate stands on his seat like Gen. Washington on the Delaware, holding up his paddle like a sword as he triumphantly leads a Russian River trash flotilla laden with spoils back from another battle against garbage.

“Where there is trash, you will find Chris,” said Factor, who has worked beside him for several years on numerous cleanup expeditions.

For Brokate, the parade of canoes passing Johnson’s Beach or Monte Rio, each vessel loaded with litter, is one of the brighter moments in a very dirty job.

Five years ago, disgusted by the waste winding up on Sonoma beaches and along the river, much of it generated by homeless encampments, Brokate began marshaling volunteers to help clean up the mess. They called themselves the Garbage Patch Kids.

He partnered with other organizations, public agencies and the homeless themselves under the umbrella of what became the Clean River Alliance. Brokate claims their combined efforts resulted in more than a million pounds of trash being hauled from the river area, garbage that not only was a blight but fouled the water source for 600,000 people.

Two years ago the alliance was folded into the Russian Riverkeeper, a larger organization that is an advocate and steward for the 1,500-square-mile watershed. Renamed The Clean Team, they run a regular trash pickup service for the homeless while also providing outreach services. That includes educating them to take responsibility for keeping their encampments tidy and out of sight.

During floods and fire The Clean Team pitches in to remove trash and debris that might otherwise make its way into the river or storm drains. They laid snakes of straw wattle through a 5-square-mile area of Fountaingrove during the Tubbs fire of 2017 to capture toxic runoff before it made its way into the watershed. They also have taken responsibility for cleaning trash from 11 miles of highway along the Russian River and Highway 101 and assisting with creek cleanups in Santa Rosa.

“We mitigate trash at every level,” said Brokate, 56, who operates at a high speed, whether moving or talking. He is grateful but never fully satisfied, because there is always more to do.

“It’s a puzzle,” he said. “If we’re not doing the whole thing, we’re not doing it. If we’re doing this and there is still trash being developed by day use, we’re not doing it. We’re just putting a little Band-Aid on it, the smallest one in the box.”

Still, he persists. For his unfailing efforts on behalf of the Russian River watershed, Chris Brokate is the winner of The North Bay Spirit Award for August. A co-project of The Press Democrat and Comcast, the award honors individuals who have gone all in to serve the community. Many, like Brokate, have poured their passions into a project they created themselves to address a community problem or need.

“Chris is relentless,“ said Supervisor James Gore, whose district includes the upper Russian River. “Over the last four or five years he has become one of the true champions of the Russian River and its watershed. And he does it by leadership through action. What I love about him is that he continues to challenge all of us to do better and do more.“

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents the lower Russian River, came to know Brokate by volunteering at one of his cleanup events and seeing him in action. She has called his grassroots movement “historic and without precedent.”

Hopkins attributes his success in building partnerships and buy-ins from so many different sectors to his credibility. He speaks “only about things he believes in.

“I would call him honest and forthright. That actually is refreshing,” she said. “He’s not going to blow smoke.”

Change in perspective

When Brokate first began his crusade to clean the river, he was angry at the homeless, posting videos on Facebook he now regrets about the trash they generated and often left behind.

His perspective changed one day when he and a crew of volunteers walked into a camp behind Safeway in downtown Guerneville bearing trash bags. He announced their arrival, the equivalent of a knock on the door, by calling out “Hello!”

“This little old lady poked her head out of a tent and goes, ‘Oh! You’re Chris Brokate. You’re the Trash Angel. We follow you on Facebook.’”

The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit Award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate, go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit

That moment, he said, still gives him chills. He realized the humanity of the people who have been dismissed by many as society’s trash.

That woman now has a home and car and volunteers with cleanups.

Brokate said he began working with the homeless to take responsibility for their campsites. In turn, The Clean Team makes weekly visits, dropping off giant orange garbage bags and coming back a week later to pick them up and haul them to the landfill. At the same time, they leave more 55-gallon bags.

“There is just no place for them to bring their trash,” Brokate said. “Twenty years ago even, there used to be dumpsters that didn’t have locks on them and more community trash cans.”

On a sweltering morning in mid-August, Brokate has joined Carole Shumate, a volunteer turned fulltime Clean Team trash collector, to pick up at least a half-dozen bulging bags near a campsite along the river in Healdsburg. It is the third stop of the day for Shumate. She will make three more pickups and at least one run to the county transfer station in Healdsburg.

A man who gave his name only as Manny has lived in this camp for years. He’s collected bags from fellow campers and wheeled them in a cart to a nearby parking lot in anticipation of The Clean Team’s arrival.

“A lot of people don’t get the concept of cleaning up after yourself. I don’t know why,” he said, shaking his head. “This keeps the trash from building up. They come every Tuesday and it helps a lot. We would have no way to pick up the trash. I wouldn’t know what to do. I would have to take it to a dumpster on the other side of the river. It’s always more pleasant when you have a clean place to go.”

For a time Brokate and his team assembled a group of homeless from a shelter and set them to work cleaning up litter left by weekenders in downtown Guerneville. They earned small incentives, such as points for gift cards at Safeway. Not only did it tidy the town, it helped change the perception of some people toward the homeless, he said.

Not everyone has been appreciative. Brokate has faced blowback at times from people who perceive his efforts as enabling the homeless and encouraging them to camp along the river.

“Not everybody loves Chris Brokate,” he said. “I can guarantee you there are people in Guerneville who will tell you I’m part of the problem.”

Tim Miller, executive director of West County Community Services, which serves the homeless along the river, said Brokate has helped mitigate the problem with respectful communication and compassion.

“Certainly some people were naysayers. But the very large percentage of the population I spoke with were very positive. It wasn’t just them going down and picking up garbage, but getting people involved. ... Chris just wants to get things done. I think we need more people like that.”

Understanding struggle

Brokate said he understands some of the struggles faced by people who don’t neatly conform to society.

He said he was labeled with a learning disability as early as kindergarten, put on Ritalin and shuttled about among special education programs at different schools. He saw up close the severe challenges some kids faced, with broken homes, abuse, learning disabilities, poverty and neglect.

“We were the misfits, The Sweathogs,” he said, referring to the class of troubled teens from the 1970s sitcom, “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

“Having said that, I relate to some of the people out there,” he said, gesturing toward the river, “because I think I could have been that person.”

With hard work and determination to shed the stigma, he pulled himself together enough to get back on track in regular classrooms by the time he was in junior high.

He always has loved science, ever since he was picked out of the crowd to hold a chimpanzee at a local theme park and felt a connection with the creature. As a young adult he volunteered by leading whale-watching trips and raising money for environmental defense.

He spent time as a volunteer firefighter and later worked as a wildland firefighter in Big Sur, where for 10 years he was a caretaker of a 44-acre property on Willow Creek. He later made his way to the far north coast, worked as a firefighter and lived off the grid until he “couldn’t handle it anymore.”

Brokate moved to Monte Rio in 2009 after falling in love with the Russian River and Sonoma Coast. He ran one of the first certified green janitorial services in Sonoma County, stepping away two years ago to run The Clean Team full time when Russian Riverkeeper took them under their fiscal wing.

It’s been a good partnership, said Don McEnhill, executive director of the Healdsburg-based nonprofit. He has known Brokate for a decade, from the time he was a standout volunteer for Riverkeeper’s annual September Russian River Watershed cleanups and other beach cleanups.

“The more you do this work, it gets harder and harder. But one of Chris’ strengths is his compassion for people and being non-judgmental,” McEnhill said.

More work to do

Brokate currently is working with The Rotary Club of Sebastopol Sunrise and Rotary International on its Cleaning the Rivers of the World project, taking the model for local action to a global scale. The initiative was inspired and spearheaded by Salvador Rico of Ukiah, who participated in Russian River cleanups farther north. It is now one of the Rotary’s keystone projects.

For all his success in making a visible dent in the river’s trash, Brokate is not content. At the moment he is is feeling upset and “beat down” by all the garbage being mowed under by county road crews and Caltrans, creating micro-particles of plastic that find their way into the air and waterways and eventually the ocean. He has been pleading with county officials, including Transportation and Public Works Director Johannes J. Hoevertsz, to at least notify The Clean Team in advance so they can go in and remove as much garbage as possible.

Hoeverstz said he and other county officials “don’t disagree” with Brokate’s concerns about mowing and are committed to doing better. But there complicating factors to work out, he said. The county has long focused on pavement repair instead of mowing, so vegetation is very high. Some high-speed roads, like River Road, pose dangers to anyone working on the shoulder. He said he is open to solutions, including using goats where possible to sheer vegetation and partnering with Brokate’s Clean Team on roads with less traffic.

Gore said he agrees with Brokate and understands his frustration. There is commitment to do something at the county level, but there are complexities, programs and policies that need to be worked out first, he said.

“He’s at the point where he’s going to blow a main vein,” Gore said. “But that’s his job to hold us accountable.

“He continues to challenge all of us to do better and do more,” Gore said. “I’ve seen him pulling old tires and engine blocks out of the Russian River. He epitomizes the phrase, ‘where there is a will, there is a way.’ And he doesn’t do it for fanfare. He does it out of an absolute love and ethos for clean water.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter @megmcconahey.

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