Don Vilelle scours the streets of Brookings
Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer   
October 02, 2012 10:02 pm

Don Vilelle picks up trash while taking a daily walk on Chetco Avenue in downtown Brookings. The Pilot/Jane Stebbins
Don Vilelle picks up trash while taking a daily walk on Chetco Avenue in downtown Brookings. The Pilot/Jane Stebbins
Don Vilelle has a love-hate relationship with trash.

He loves getting in his exercise, walking two to four miles a couple times a week, picking trash up along Chetco Avenue and Railroad Street.

He hates that the trash is there, that people pitch it out their cars or dump it alongside of the main street through Brookings.

But pick it up he does, everything from coffee cups, advertising fliers, candy wrappers, soda cans and plastic bags to illegally posted garage-sale signs. The most common thing he picks up is the hand sanitizing napkins offered to customers at grocery stores in town. Once, he found two $20 bills in one stretch over the Chetco River bridge.

And there are things he won’t pick up: dog excrement, cigarette butts and diapers, among them.

“It depends on what I see on the road,” he said with a smile. “If I picked up every cigarette butt, it’d take me all day to go one block. I believe I’m doing my part to help the community. And I get to meet a lot of interesting people doing this.”

While walking down Chetco Avenue recently, at least a half-dozen people honked or waved him over to chat or rib him about his trash-collecting activity.

Some people have asked him how many more hours he has left to complete his community service, mistakenly believing he has committed a crime. Some ask him how much the city pays him for the work. Many yell ‘Thanks!’ or give him a thumbs-up.

He takes it all in stride.

Three years ago, while working along Railroad Street, an older couple stopped him and offered him money.

“He gets his wallet out and pulls out a $5 bill,” Vilelle said with a smile. “And they ask, ‘Aren’t you after cans and bottles?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ll pick them up,’ and he insisted I take the $5 bill. I wouldn’t, and the lady said, ‘Well, if he doesn’t want it. …’”

The Cole Camp, Mo., native used to pick up trash in his town, a village of 1,000 people – and that featured more roadside litter than Brookings.

 Vilelle, 67, has no idea how much each of his 55-gallon trash bags weighs after he fills it, nor has he ever kept count of the number of bags he’s collected in the past seven years he and his wife have lived in Brookings.

Last Saturday, it took him about an hour to fill two bags.

But the garbage is secondary.

“Mornings like this, it’s nice and cool; it’s so good to be out,” he said, as a light string of fog threatened to waft over the bridge. “It’s, what? Fifty-one degrees? Just the way I like it. And look at the views.

“And there’s the exercise. The city offered to get me one of those pick-up tools, but how am I supposed to get my exercise, bending over? I like to think it keeps me in somewhat decent shape.”

The tall, lanky man – always sporting a bright tie-dye and shorts on his forays – said he doesn’t have time to join, say, Trash Dogs, which picks up trash dumped in the national forest.

“This is my contribution to trash,” he said, rattling off a list of activities in which he already participates: the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission, garden club, an usher and liturgist as his church, and part-time work at Century 21, his homeowner’s association, Salmon Run, and soon, as a driver for Curry Public Transit’s Trans-Link.

His wife, Martha, thinks he takes on too much, but he said he’ll cut back when she does. She is in a barbershop quartet, their church’s choir, conducts a Bible study, plays golf, helps people with tax information and was the past president of the lady’s golf club at Salmon Run.

Vilelle’s route takes him from Fred Meyer to the Chetco River bridge and sometimes meandering through the neighborhood on the ocean side of town. The worst places along that route are near Fred Meyer – advertising fliers and sanitary hand wipes – and the bridge, where he often finds what homeless people have left behind.

“This doesn’t look too bad today,” he said, picking through a lot on Fifth Street. “Sundays are bad, after people are out Saturday night, or when it’s really windy.”

As a former teacher, he hopes his work inspires others – if not to pick up trash themselves, as many say they will, but to discourage people from littering in the first place.

“A lot of people notice I do this,” he said. “Hopefully it’ll change their attitude. I don’t know. But it’s gratifying. I know people appreciate what I’m doing.”

He doesn’t know it he’ll ever quit.

“The day that I can walk from Chetco bridge to Fred Meyer and not pick up one piece of trash,” he said. “When that happens, I know the message has gotten out and I don’t need to pick up trash anymore.”

Unfortunately, he doesn’t see that happening any time soon.

On the other hand, the trash will help him keep his slim profile.