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The Black River’s Best Friend

Sunday, August 10, 2014
Springfield, Vt. — Graduation speeches and other motivational talks often urge listeners to find their passion.

But as sometimes happens, Springfield resident Kelly Stettner’s passion found her. And it changed her life.

6:15 a.m.

Just past dawn on a recent Wednesday, Stettner, 44, and her daughter, Moira, were already halfway through their monthly mission — collecting water samples from the Black River in Springfield, Vt.

They walked briskly from the parking lot on Clinton Street, down the bike path that runs through town and slipped behind a chain-link fence.

After a short hike on an overgrown trail, they made their way down a steep, rocky embankment to the water, murky after recent heavy rains. Mo, 15, scooped up river water in a plastic bottle attached with duct tape to what appeared to be a well-worn walking stick.

Squatting on the bank next to her, Kelly poured the water into small bottles. In the process, she fielded a question.

“Mom, what is this?” asked Mo, holding up a small brown husk.

“That’s a shell of something,” Stettner said, taking a look at the old exoskeleton.“Probably a dragonfly.”

Both Kelly and her daughter were sporting ponytails and T-shirts bearing the logo of BRAT, the Black River Action Team. The nonprofit, which Stettner founded, works to promote enjoyment of the 40-mile-long river, a tributary of the Connecticut River, and maintain its health.

In its early years, BRAT’s annual river cleanup attracted fewer than 20 volunteers; now, more than 100 take part.

Stettner, who was recently honored for her stewardship, likes to tell the story of how she went from annoyed citizen observer to the leader of the multi-faceted environmental organization, starting with a conversation in 2000.

“Mo was not even 2 yet, and we had just moved from Londonderry to Springfield to be closer to my job,” she said. “We were walking over the bridge by the plaza. … I like to look there to see what’s floating around or swimming in the water, but instead of seeing turtles or fish … we saw shopping carts, cement blocks and tires.”

“That’s really nasty, and someone should do something about that,” she said, wondering who to call. The town? The plaza owners? The state?

Then, her husband, John, uttered the magic words, the simple statement that would shape the next period of their lives: “You’re somebody.”

The words were like “a mental slap,” said Stettner, who has this thing about personal responsibility. “If you’re going to whine and complain about something, step up and do something about it,” she said.

Plus, she’s always liked rivers. Growing up, she lived near various waterways, including the Pemigewasset and Contoocook rivers, and several unnamed streams. “Flowing water has always done something for me,” she said.

Stettner contacted the Connecticut River Watershed Council, which holds an annual cleanup of the watershed. Staff members told her no one was working in the Springfield area, and why didn’t she start something?

That September, equipped with gloves and trash bags from the council, Stettner, John and Mo, then 2, teamed up with two of Stettner’s co-workers and joined in. They focused on a short section of the Black River in downtown Springfield, hauling out four or five tires, a dozen or more shopping carts and garbage bags full of other junk.

At the time, Stettner never imagined the volunteer work would seep like river water into every part of her life.

“I thought it would be a one-time thing,” she said.

But the cleanups continued, still with materials from the council, and RiverSweep now covers nearly all of the Black River. Over the years, BRAT has collaborated with at least a dozen other organizations, including the Ottauquechee Natural Resources Conservation District, the Army Corps of Engineers and Vermont’s Fish and Wildlife Department, and added a variety of new programs.

BRAT has expanded with minimal effort, Stettner said. “It’s like planting seeds. Step back a little and see how it grows.”

Today, the nonprofit holds a central place in her daily schedule — her days are punctuated by emails and phone calls from volunteers and partner organizations; she does outreach and writes a BRAT blog — all on top of her day job. She tries to balance family life and volunteering — some evenings are devoted to BRAT work, while others are reserved for family activities.

Still, they have less time together than she’d like. “I do wish I had a clone,” she said.

Does John, a stay-at-home dad who homeschools Mo and their 8-year-old son, Armando, ever wish he had more time with his wife?

“Always,” he said.

Yet, because it’s important, and important to Kelly, he supports BRAT however he can — running errands, pitching in on projects, fielding phone calls. It also plays a big part in their children’s lives.

Both Moira and Armando take part in BRAT activities, he said. “We like to teach our children that it’s important to be part of the community, to take responsibility for the world around you, and what Kelly’s doing is a very visible, very visceral example of that.”

On this morning, as mother and daughter wrapped up the testing, the clock was ticking — Stettner was due at work at Precision Valley Communications on River Street by 8 a.m. But before scrambling back up the bank, she and Mo shared a joke.

Stettner pointed out a small whirlpool in the water.

“An eddy,” she said.

But Mo disagreed.

“That’s not an eddy. That’s a Larry,” she said, and they both grinned.

7:45 a.m.

After darting home for a shower, Stettner arrived at the office, her long hair combed to the side in a fresh ponytail. She set a cooler behind the building — Precision Valley Communications is the drop-off point for the half dozen other BRAT volunteers who were also collecting water that morning, part of the monthly sampling the team does between May and September.

Some bottles had already been dropped off, and Stettner placed a few in the cooler. The others she carried inside to the break room and stashed in the crisper drawer of the shared refrigerator. In addition to storing samples onsite, Stettner, the company’s administrative assistant, spends her downtime at work taking care of BRAT business.

Stettner, who has worked for PVC for 20 years, is grateful that her employer is so supportive. “It makes a big difference,” she said.

The reasons for their support are twofold, said Roger Cawvey, president of the company, which provides engineering for telecom and cable companies.

“BRAT is a good cause for the neighborhood, for Vermont and for the environment,” he said.

Also, Stettner is an “outstanding employee,” and he frequently receives enthusiastic feedback about her from customers. The company wants to support her as a good employee, he said.

A few minutes before 8, Stettner is sitting at “mission control,” checking her email, sipping coffee she made at home. In her work area is a box for printer cartridges, old digital cameras and “dead cell phones,” which she recycles to help fund BRAT.

During a break, she organizes the water samples, which will be picked up that day and transported to the University of Vermont and a lab in Lebanon.

Some of the testing is grant funded, and some is done for free, reflecting the sort of partnerships Stettner has created over the years. The results are used by BRAT and the state of Vermont to monitor the river’s health. (See related story, above. )


Stettner took half a vacation day to lead an educational program with a local summer camp, and by noon, she was ready to leave the office. She made a quick call home, asking John to make sure the kids and their friends were ready to go, and signed out for the day.

At the Stettners’ white 1940s bungalow, across the street from the Black River, two black Labs played in a fenced in area. The words “Black River Action Team” are stenciled onto a small shed near the house.

Stettner chatted with her children for a few minutes and then zipped into the house to change her clothes yet again.

After piling into the family’s sole vehicle, a gray-blue Dodge Caravan, they headed to North Springfield Bog to meet up with a busload of campers and staff from Summer Daze, a K-6 program sponsored by the Springfield School District.

Standing in the parking area, Stettner told the group about bogs, mentioning that some of the plants in the wetland eat bugs. A camper gasped at the thought, and she reassured him. “They’re not going to hurt you.”

Armed with plant and animal identification sheets, the group hiked into the bog. The afternoon was sultry, and counselors brought along a few cases of bottled water.

Chelsea Ambrose reminded the children to keep track of their bottles, “because how gross would that look if there were water bottles everywhere?” asked Ambrose, an AmeriCorps Vista member working with the summer program. “Does that make sense to everyone?”

Her question elicited a chorus of “yes!”

The outing was cut short when several campers and a few adults were stung by bees — everyone recovered quickly — but not before the children tracked down some of the bog’s flora and fauna. Exploring from the wooden walkways, they called out as they spotted a frog and pitcher plants.

“You are good at finding things,” Stettner told them.

Stettner holds a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, but most of what she knows about plants, watersheds and wildlife she’s learned through her volunteer work.

“I’ve discovered whole new rooms to explore, whole new dimensions of things I never thought of before,” she said.

A Concord native and Plymouth High School graduate, she studied for a few years at Bennington College in Vermont. She laughed when she recalled her choice of colleges, wondering why on earth anyone had encouraged her, the daughter of a truck driver and home day care owner, to attend what was then the country’s most expensive college.

She eventually paid off her student loans and went back to school after having children, earning her degree from Union Institute and University in Brattleboro.

In Bennington, she met John, who was working in a comic book shop. Stettner stopped into the store after an eye exam, and when her ride didn’t show up, he gave her a lift back to school. They’ve been together ever since, she said.

The couple moved around Vermont for a time, living in several towns and running their own comic book shops. They later settled down in Springfield, where Stettner had taken a job at PVC.

2:45 p.m.

The plan was to drop by Riverside Middle School after the bog excursion, so the kids could play on the playground.

But thirsty and peckish after the outing, they detoured to McDonald’s for cups of water and ice cream sundaes. Afterward, the children walked next door to the school and Stettner caught up with them in the van.

It was a brief rest stop — soon, she would drop off the kids at home and go to a dentist appointment. Then, she’d return home for dinner and “hunker down” to watch a movie with her family, folding laundry as she watched.

At the school, sitting at a shaded picnic table, Stettner reflected on BRAT’s history and her hopes for the future. Fourteen years after the first cleanup, the Black River is “a lot cleaner, in terms of trash,” she said.

Looking ahead, in addition to the cleanup, she hopes to combine recreation and education and collaboration, which she sees as a recipe for good river stewardship.

“Come play with me on the river,” she said. “We’ll automatically be more aware of it. We’ll take better care of it.”

This summer, she’s worked with local hotels to create a “voluntourism” package, which includes discounts for people who visit the area and agree to get involved with RiverSweep.

And while she’s in no big rush, there’s much more she’d like to do: expand the water testing program, assess the streambed health, offer paddling trips and fly-fishing clinics.

Stettner’s energy appears endless. She’s quick with a joke, a story and, even after 14 years, is still bursting with new ideas for BRAT.

“We’ll make it happen,” she said. “We’re going to do the work. It’s our river.”

Yet, she’s cautious about organization’s growth.

“I would rather do five good, significant smallish projects and do them really well, than do 15 … and spread myself too thin like butter on too much bread,” she said, paraphrasing Bilbo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings .

The nonprofit, with an annual budget of about $2,000, is supported by donations and, occasionally, grants. Local businesses have stepped in to help with various aspects of BRAT’s work, and recently, Stettner received an award from Green Mountain Power that included $2,500 for BRAT.

“Kelly’s spirit, determination and commitment to improve the Black River region inspired hundreds of people,” Mary Powell, the company’s CEO and president, said in a news release this spring.

“Through force of will and incredible optimism, Kelly built a broad coalition that collaborated to clean up the river.”

While funding is important for accomplishing their goals, “money is probably the least of it,” Stettner said. Instead, time and volunteers are most crucial. She respects the fact that people are busy.

“All my volunteers, even those who are retired, have families and obligations, hobbies that they would like to pursue,” she said.

“I truly value them.”

And she hopes to bring more volunteers on board. Any time or effort helps, she said, “even if it’s just becoming a friend on Facebook and sharing my posts.”

John, Stettner’s husband, is full of faith in her ability to recruit people to help out.

“She is sweet, she’s honest, … she is empowering people, she encourages ownership and stewardship,” he said.

And while some environmental groups focus on raising donations, Stettner takes the opposite approach, he said. “Money doesn’t clean up rivers. Hands clean up rivers.”

Hands, much like Stettner’s, driven by passion and an acute sense of personal responsibility.

Aimee Caruso can be reached at or 603-727-3210.

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