MANSFIELD — Although he maintains he’s not a neat freak, Neil Rhein’s reputation for being mean on litter is spreading.
Six years ago, Rhein helped organize nearly 1,000 volunteers for the first Great American Cleanup of Mansfield, his adopted hometown. They hauled away rusting kitchen appliances, dozens of discarded tires, and hundreds of bags of litter from roadsides, parks, schools, and wooded areas throughout town.
Last Saturday, as an estimated 700 volunteers were again spread out across Mansfield to pick up trash, organizers in Norton and North Attleborough were carrying out similar efforts. And organizers in Bridgewater plan to join the initiative next year.
All say they have taken inspiration from Rhein, who has given them tips on how to do everything from basic goal-setting to fund-raising to communications.
“It’s catching on. I’d love to help spread it throughout Bristol County and statewide,” said Rhein, who received training through the national Keep America Beautiful organization. The organization has affiliated groups in about 20,000 communities across the country that send several million volunteers out to pick up trash on the same day in April each year.
Rhein said his wife, Theresa, had a lot to do with motivating him to get involved. He had complained to her so frequently about the litter on the roadsides after they moved there from Belmont in 1995 that she challenged him to do something about it.
“I’m not a neat freak,” said Rhein, a 49-year-old writer. “I guess it’s my German heritage to appreciate order.”
He helped found the Keep Mansfield Beautiful Committee (www.keepmansfieldbeautiful.com), which has raised about $60,000 in grants and funds in the past six years for programs aimed at making the town more attractive.
Rhein said that in the first year of the cleanup volunteers picked up many large items like appliances, but since then the trash has been “fresher.” Among the more interesting discards are a bowling ball, bicycles, a toilet, many alcohol containers, and occasionally money.
Dozens of businesses, organizations, and community groups, along with local departments of public works, get involved each year. On Saturday, Kelly Newton was with about 20 members of the cast of the Mansfield High School production of “Legally Blonde” who were picking up beverage cans and other trash behind the school.
“It’s a cast bonding experience,” said Newton, a junior who will play the lead in the musical that starts May 9.
“It’s insane how much litter there is,” said another cast member, Michaela Buccini, a junior who held an oversized yellow trash bag that was filling up quickly.
Although Newton and Buccini perked up when they found a battered dollar bill, they said, in unison: “People need to clean up after themselves.”
David Kobasa, who is on the Keep Mansfield Beautiful Committee and was supervising the area behind the high school on Saturday, said Rhein puts hundreds of volunteer hours into the projects each year.
“Neil is very passionate about the town and about community service. He’s a diplomat, which helps, and he’s driven,” Kobasa said.
Louis F. Andrews, president of the Natural Resources Trust of Mansfield who has been working to preserve open space since 1971, proudly wore his T-shirt from the first cleanup day in 2008.
“Neil took an idea and made it into an impressive community event,” Andrews said during a lunch of hotdogs and pizza for volunteers held at the Comcast Center.
Meanwhile in Norton, four members of the Norton High School track team wearing the fluorescent green T-shirt issued to volunteers were having lunch at a McDonald’s after taking part in their town’s second annual cleanup.
“It feels good to help the community,” said Nick Skotny, a senior who will be attending the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in the fall.
Teammate Brendan Durocher, a junior, said each of the roughly 30 teammates picked up two bags of trash and he was hoping he doesn’t end up with poison ivy.
Norton’s efforts include a water cleanup group sponsored by Norton Kayak Co. owners Dave and Liz Lennon. About a half-dozen students went out onto Norton Reservoir and pulled up barrels and other trash, said Lisa Ledwith, a member of the task force that sponsored the cleanup.
Ledwith, a former special education teacher, said she had about 340 volunteers signed up and raised about $2,000 for T-shirts and pizza for volunteers.
Another former teacher, Marsha Goldstein of North Attleborough, said she was dismayed by the amount of litter she saw each morning as she walked her dog before school.
“You really notice the litter when you walk. I always said I would do something about it when I retired,” said Goldstein, who retired last year and was on the committee for the town’s first cleanup event last Saturday.
She said that more than 400 people signed up to help and that the logistics “have just been mind-boggling.” She said she hopes to start a year-round public awareness antilittering campaign and help implement a curriculum on it in the schools.
In Bridgewater, Shawn Saunders, a recent transplant from Mansfield, is hoping to help start the Great American Cleanup in Bridgewater next year.
“I like the volunteer community feel that Neil was building,” Saunders said. “If you work together, you can get things done.”