Recycling partnership at Jack London park in Glen Ellen goes beyond monetary value

The program, started to pay for garbage costs at the Glen Ellen park, proves gratifying to autistic adult participants from Sonoma.|

Andrew Kirk wasn’t too sure about the recycling gig at Jack London State Historic Park when the Sonoma man first pitched in to help.

Like many people who have autism, Kirk, 21, struggles with changes in his daily routine.

But on Thursday - the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, Kirk, a history buff, noted - he looked like an old pro sorting and bagging assorted glass and plastic bottles at the Glen Ellen park.

“Satisfaction,” Kirk said when he was asked what he liked about volunteering. “Plus, I like the history of this area a lot.”

Kirk is a resident at Sweetwater Spectrum, an independent living community for autistic adults in Sonoma that has teamed up with members of Sonoma Valley High School’s Wolf Club and volunteer docents at Jack London to handle the park’s recycling needs.

The unique partnership was formed a year ago with the goal of covering the park’s monthly garbage bills, which typically are about $130. Organizers say the program of selling recycled items has generated more than $1,500 in a year.

That’s just the financial accounting. The net worth of the program’s value to Sweetwater residents in particular is a little harder to calculate, but may best be expressed in the smiles on display at Thursday’s sorting.

“It’s wonderful to see the clients engaged in the process and expanding their capabilities,” said Mari Jo Dickerson, a Jack London docent who oversees the recycling program.

The group gathered Thursday morning in a eucalyptus grove near Jack London’s cottage for the weekly event.

Kirk was joined by fellow Sweetwater resident Gabriel de Balmann, 37, staff from the Sonoma home and park docents. Sweetwater residents and the high school students perform the work on alternating weeks.

In about a half-hour, the group sorted and bagged glass and plastic that had been deposited in trash and recycling containers throughout the park. The items are sold at a recycling facility in Santa Rosa.

April is National Autism Awareness Month. The recycling job spotlights opportunities that exist for people who are living with the disorder.

“There’s so much dignity in being able to work,” said Michael Whitaker, a personal assistant employed by Sweetwater, which opened in 2013 as the nation’s first independent living community designed from the ground up specifically for the needs of adults with autism.

Bo Kearns, a park docent, said the Sweetwater residents seemed reluctant to participate in the recycling effort at first.

“Now, they get right in,” he said. “I think they’ve learned some skills and it has helped their self-esteem.”

Jack London park received a $15,800 grant to pay for 10 new trash and recycle containers, according to Dickerson. The containers, which are critter-proof, have helped increase the retention of recyclable items disposed of in the park.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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