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7th Generation: Witches Save a Highway

Friday, July 9, 2004 at 2:57 PM

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We've all seen them - those folks in orange vests who come out four times a year to pick up litter along the highway. Ohio is rich in these volunteers. More than 1,700 groups - at least one in each county - give their time to keep our roads and roadside ditches cleaner, saving millions of taxpayer dollars a year. But across the country, some organizations are finding it hard to be accepted into the Adopt-a-Highway program. In some states officials say they won't allow groups with a policy of discrimination or advocacy to put their names on an adopt-a-highway sign. Ohio isn't one of these, even though some signs here are turning heads. ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports.

A new aspect of Ohio’s Adopt-a-Highway program allows groups or individuals to dedicate their clean-up efforts to a loved one killed in a car accident. To learn more, click here.

On an early summer morning, three people clad in orange safety vests are picking up litter along a half-mile two-lane stretch of State Route 58 in Lorain County that fairly hums with car and truck traffic.

Lots of Swisher Sweet Tops, little cigar tops. Lots of fast food containers. Car parts! There’s half a car down there in a pile. Baby, watch out!

Kelly Rayha of Elyria and Tom Stetak of La Grange, along with their friend Laura, are members of a local group that’s volunteered to keep this stretch of highway clean. They’re out for the first time this year. Rain has kept road crews from cutting the grass along the shoulder, so the three aren’t venturing into the deep ditch that parallels the road. But the stuff they’re picking up is steadily filling the large black plastic garbage bags they’re leaving behind for later pick-up.

Well, we had 28 bags, Laura? 28 of these, full. Plus piles of hubcaps.

Farther up the road, two more crews are cleaning up the rest of the two-mile stretch of highway this group has adopted. In their dedication they’re typical of the 1,700 civic groups that pick up litter in Ohio each year. But read their highway sign and you get a jolt. It says Adopt A Highway Litter Control - Lorain County Witches.

What did you find? Oh, no, it’s dead! What kind of butterfly is it? I have no clue. Back to nature little butterfly!

You might wonder what witches have to do with environmental clean-up. But Kelly Rayha believes the connection is a natural. She says her group is actually a coalition of local pagans whose beliefs embrace the natural world.

Kelly Rayha: Keeping the earth clean. (Karen: But everybody wants to do that.) Everybody wants to, but nobody does.

As crew members stoop and bend, the occasional passing motorist gives a honk as if to say thanks. But Tom Stetak says adopting this stretch of Route 58 and getting a sign wasn’t as easy as he thought it would be.

Tom Stetak: Lot of hoops to jump through. And they lost our paperwork at one time. It seemed like a good idea to do just to get public exposure that witches are people that are all around you, they do normal things, that they’re not crazy. You know, they volunteer, they give effort to the community. So that we’re a positive in the community, too.

At the Ohio Department of Transportation Adopt-A-Highway program chief Scott Lucas says he can’t account for the long delay. He says the state welcomes any group that will keep their commitment to the 2-year clean-up.

Scott Lucas: Our pagan groups are some of our best groups out there that pick up very, very well. They’re very earth-conscious people. People might not agree with their religious views, but they’re very earth-conscious people.

Lucas acknowledges the state did have a problem with another group a few years back. The Klu Klux Klan adopted a highway in the southern part of Ohio over the objections of some local residents. But they failed to keep their highway clean, so their sign was yanked.

Nationally, some states have seen real controversy arise over the Adopt-A-Highway program, which began as a grassroots effort in Texas in 1985. In South Dakota, members of the Sioux Nation Gay and Lesbian Coalition were refused entry into the program until the American Civil Liberties Union stepped in. Jennifer Ring is director of the ACLU of the Dakotas.

Jennifer Ring: This is a straight free speech issue. And the problems always come up when whatever the group is that wants to speak through this little mini-bulletin board is a group that a significant number of people don’t approve of or don’t like.

Under pressure from the ACLU, the South Dakota governor allowed the Sioux group to join the program, then threatened to remove all adopt-a-highway signs within a year. So far, Ring says, the signs are still there. But in Missouri a battle that went to the state Supreme Court is still raging over the Klu Klux Klan’s right to serve as a litter clean-up crew. The courts upheld the KKK under the First Amendment, but the state changed the adopt-a-highway guidelines to exclude groups that discriminate. In the meantime, the road in question has been renamed the Rosa Parks Highway.

But here in Ohio, issues of discrimination are of less concern to the Lorain County Witches than the trash left behind by careless motorists. After a hard morning’s work, the litter crew is ready to pack up. And Kelly Rayha flaunts the find of the day.

Kelly Rayha: I found a sharpened pencil. What’s it say on it? It says City of Lorain Curbside Recycling Program! (laughs)

Rayha says she’s thinking of mailing it back to them with a note about where it was found. And the Witches say they’ll stay the course and keep their stretch of highway clean. In Lorain County, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.

Additional Information

* People for the American Way - Gay and Lesbian Group Fights for Adopt-a-Highway Recognition
* Freedom Forum - Judge Clears Way for KKK to Join State's Adopt-A-Highway Program

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