When a group of local business leaders decided to make the Baltimore harbor fishable and swimmable by 2020, they quickly realized they needed to get weird.

"We wanted to install a device that would immediately reduce the amount of trash going into the Baltimore harbor," explains Adam Lindquist, director of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore's Healthy Harbor Initiative.

The solution came from local sailor and inventor John Kellett who, after years of noticing trash floating in the Jones Falls River, had installed a pilot "trash wheel" in the harbor in 2008. The Waterfront Partnership commissioned a permanent version that sits at the mouth of the river, scooping up discarded plastic on a solar-powered conveyor belt and depositing it into a series of dumpsters.


The group dubbed the faceless machine "Mr. Trash Wheel."

[rebelmouse-image 19532893 dam="1" original_size="1200x623" caption="The original Mr. Trash Wheel. Photo by Sarr Cat/Wikimedia Commons." expand=1]The original Mr. Trash Wheel. Photo by Sarr Cat/Wikimedia Commons.

Since then, it has pulled over a million pounds of trash out of the water, inspiring a historical marker, a beer, an e-book, a painting, and dozens of Halloween costumes. Neat as he was, Mr. Trash Wheel's success and popularity were in no way preordained.

How did a group of business owners, environmentalists, and activists turn a giant, floating dumpster into an unofficial mascot of Baltimore?

They brought him to life.

Becoming Mr. Trash Wheel

Mr. Trash Wheel is on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram (not Snapchat; he hasn't figured it out yet). The first thing you notice when you start following him are his large, playful, googly eyes — eyes that were not attached to the real-life Mr. Trash Wheel (at least at first). The second thing you notice is how delightfully off-kilter and specifically human he is. Like a comic relief character from a good Pixar film.

His voice was originally created by Justin Allen of Baltimore ad agency What Works Studios in 2014. In the summer of 2015, the handle passed to Robyn Stegman, who's been operating it — and refining Mr. Trash Wheel's personality — ever since.  

"I started [as] the voice of Mr. Trash Wheel the week before we found the snake," says Stegman, who heads the trash wheel project for the mission-driven agency ChangingMedia.

The snake she's referring to is an escaped ball python that crawled up Mr. Trash Wheel's conveyor belt and wrapped itself around a control box about two years ago. Stegman described the ensuing media storm as a "trial by fire."

"It really helped me very early on build my voice and get that Mr. Trash Wheel voice in my head," she says.

The first thing she decided was that the 15-foot long, garbage-eating steampunk river cleaner would have a cheesily well-developed sense of humor.

"As soon as I started making snake puns, you had 20 other followers that were making hilarious other snake jokes," she explains. "So it became really great that way."

Stegman continues to infuse Mr. Trash Wheel with her own "nerdom and geekdom," which has endeared him to fans around the city. He loves "Star Wars." He makes "Lord of the Rings" fan art. He writes "Choose Your Own Adventure" novels and has spent hours answering questions on Reddit. Occasionally, he participates in local events.

"[Robyn] just has a crazy, funny mind," Lindquist says.

The plan wasn't always to create a trash wheel with such a vivacious personality. The idea to turn Mr. Trash Wheel into a bonafide citywide star came after a video of the device that went viral a few months after its installation in May 2014.

Soon Mr. Trash Wheel had his own Twitter account and those distinctive googly eyes, thanks to a quick photo editing job.

After the snake incident, the trash wheel's popularity soared, leading fans to demand that the real-life Mr. Trash Wheel take on some of the personality of the online version. A petition to mount actual googly eyes on the device was launched. The eyes were added later that year.

[rebelmouse-image 19532894 dam="1" original_size="700x364" caption="Mr. Trash Wheel plus eyes. Photo by Dicklyon/Wikimedia Commons." expand=1]Mr. Trash Wheel plus eyes. Photo by Dicklyon/Wikimedia Commons.

"It really looks like a muppet of some sort, you know?" Lindquist says.

Not everyone was a fan of Mr. Trash Wheel's social media presence initially.

That included Kellett, who worried the device's "90% great" social feed could divert attention from the rigorous work of cleaning up the waterway.  

"The googly eyes don’t help people take it seriously," he told National Geographic in February. "People sometimes think it’s a sculpture."

Stegman says the character's lightheartedness is part of a trade off to deliver a pro-conservation message to as broad an audience as possible.

"We've had conversations about how it doesn't appeal to really a lot of true environmental advocates," she explains. "But we want to focus more on getting everyone involved. Because it really is something that requires a large groundswell of individuals in order to really start pushing legislation or starting to push consumer shifts to address this issue."

Professor Trash Wheel joins her friend in the harbor

Partially in response to the criticism, the group decided when the city installed a second trash wheel, it would create a more cerebral character to the trash wheel universe and introduced the city to Professor Trash Wheel. Unlike her colleague across the harbor, Professor Trash Wheel is a scientist. Stegman describes her voice as a mix between "Beyoncé and Eleanor Roosevelt," with a little bit of Ada Lovelace tossed in.

"Her Twitter following is so much more ocean scientists and ocean advocates because we’re posting much more about the science behind ocean plastics and ocean trash," Stegman explains.

The trash wheels' unique personalities have elevated their status as a local heroes.

They were even the subject of a musical tribute earlier this year.

"It’s one of the catchier songs about solid waste disposal that’s out there," says Jonathan Jensen, bassist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the composer and lyricist behind "Mr. Trash Wheel." The upbeat, Dixieland thumper has become a kind of unofficial anthem for the harbor restoration project after its debut at a launch event for a trash wheel-themed microbrew, Mr. Trash Wheel's Lost Python Ale.

Mr. Trash Wheel got his very own song! It was written by Jonathan Jensen (on piano) and performed by Tongue in Cheek at last weekend's beer launch at Peabody Heights Brewery, LLC.We are currently seeking a donation of studio time so that everyone can hear this epic masterpiece.

Posted by Healthy Harbor on Sunday, April 30, 2017

Jensen, who hadn't seen the trash wheel when he dreamed up the song, was immediately taken with the character via social media. He believes the rabid fan response is a tribute to the "creativity and quirkiness" of the local community and art scene.

"[Mr. Trash Wheel's] got his own Facebook page, and the posts are in the first person, so you feel like this is a character of some kind," Jensen says. "It's just fun."

Stegman believes the key to the trash wheels' popularity is their authentic, human enthusiasm, which is difficult to fake. "I think that one thing that fans really appreciate about Mr. Trash Wheel is that we’re not afraid to go super weird with them and meet them at the spaces they already are," she says.

And the enthusiasm seems to be spilling over into real life. Last month, the group launched Trash-Free Tuesday, encouraging fans to pick up trash and litter on Tuesday and tag their photos and enticing them with a series of Mr. Trash Wheel prize packages.

On Nov. 18, over 100 fans reported to a warehouse to sift through the refuse collected by the trash wheels to "audit" the contents.

"We posted it once on social media, and we were sold out within three days," Lindquist says. "And we were worried about whether we would actually have fans that would come wake up early on a Saturday morning and dig through literal trash. But it’s amazing to see how fans respond to that."

Meanwhile, the trash wheels' fan club has gone global. "We just heard from a teacher in Ecuador that’s using Mr. Trash Wheel to teach about ocean trash in her classroom," Stegman says.

The Waterfront Partnership's ultimate goal is to get the harbor clean enough to put the trash wheels out of business.

In the meantime, the group has big plans for the project. A new trash wheel, Captain Trash Wheel, is set to debut in South Baltimore's Masonville Cove in 2018. In the meantime, the fans, ever vigilant, have organized a petition to "promote" Mr. Trash Wheel to a more senior rank.

"It's been such a crazy, wild ride," Stegman says.

All thanks to a solar-powered garbage-eating raft with a personality as big as the Chesapeake Bay.

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
True

When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

Ronny Tertnes' "liquid sculptures" are otherworldly.

Human beings have sculpted artwork out of all kinds of materials throughout history, from clay to concrete to bronze. Some sculpt with water in the form of ice, but what if you could create sculptures with small drops of liquid?

Norwegian artist Ronny Tertnes does just that. His "liquid sculptures" look like something from another planet or another dimension, while at the same time are entirely recognizable as water droplets.

I mean, check this out:


Keep Reading Show less
Images courtesy of AFutureSuperhero and Friends and Balance Dance Project
True

The day was scorching hot, but the weather wasn’t going to stop a Star Wars Stormtrooper from handing out school supplies to a long line of eager children. “You guys don’t have anything illegal back there - any droids or anything?” the Stormtrooper asks, making sure he was safe from enemies before handing over a colorful backpack to a smiling boy.

The man inside the costume is Yuri Williams, founder of AFutureSuperhero And Friends, a Los Angeles nonprofit that uplifts and inspires marginalized people with small acts of kindness.

Yuri’s organization is one of four inaugural grant winners from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, a joint initiative between Upworthy and GoFundMe that celebrates kindness and everyday actions inspired by the best of humanity. This year, the Upworthy Kindness Fund is giving $100,000 to grassroots changemakers across the world.

To apply, campaign organizers simply tell Upworthy how their kindness project is making a difference. Between now and the end of 2021, each accepted individual or organization will receive $500 towards an existing GoFundMe and a shout-out on Upworthy.

Meet the first four winners:

1: Balance Dance Project: This studio aims to bring accessible dance to all in the Sacramento, CA area. Lead fundraiser Miranda Macias says many dancers spend hours a day at Balance practicing contemporary, lyrical, hip-hop, and ballet. Balance started a GoFundMe to raise money to cover tuition for dancers from low-income communities, buy dance team uniforms, and update its facility. The $500 contribution from the Kindness Fund nudged Balance closer to its $5,000 goal.

2: Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team: In Los Angeles, middle school teacher James Pike is introducing his students to the field of robotics via a Lego-building team dedicated to solving real-world problems.

James started a GoFundMe to crowdfund supplies for his students’ team ahead of the First Lego League, a school-against-school matchup that includes robotics competitions. The team, James explained, needed help to cover half the cost of the pricey $4,000 robotics kit. Thanks to help from the Upworthy Kindness Fund and the generosity of the Citizens of the World Middle School community, the team exceeded its initial fundraising goal.

Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

3: Black Fluidity Tattoo Club: Kiara Mills and Tann Parker want to fix a big problem in the tattoo industry: there are too few Black tattoo artists. To tackle the issue, the duo founded the Black Fluidity Tattoo Club to inspire and support Black tattooers. While the Brooklyn organization is open to any Black person, Kiara and Tann specifically want to encourage dark-skinned artists to train in an affirming space among people with similar identities.

To make room for newcomers, the club recently moved into a larger studio with a third station for apprentices or guest artists. Unlike a traditional fundraiser that supports the organization exclusively, Black Fluidity Tattoo Club will distribute proceeds from GoFundMe directly to emerging Black tattoo artists who are starting their own businesses. The small grants, supported in part with a $500 contribution from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, will go towards artists’ equipment, supplies, furnishings, and other start-up costs.

4: AFutureSuperhero And Friends’ “Hope For The Holidays”: Founder Yuri Williams is fundraising for a holiday trip to spread cheer to people in need across all fifty states.

Along with collaborator Rodney Smith Jr., Yuri will be handing out gifts to children, adults, and animals dressed as a Star Wars’ Stormtrooper, Spiderman, Deadpool, and other movie or comic book characters. Starting this month, the crew will be visiting children with disabilities or serious illnesses, bringing leashes and toys to animal shelters for people taking home a new pet, and spreading blessings to unhoused people—all while in superhero costume. This will be the third time Yuri and his nonprofit have taken this journey.

AFutureSuperhero started a GoFundMe in July to cover the cost of gifts as well as travel expenses like hotels and rental cars. To help the nonprofit reach its $15,000 goal, the Upworthy Kindness Fund contributed $500 towards this good cause.

Think you qualify for the fund? Tell us how you’re bringing kindness to your community. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis from now through the end of 2021. For questions and more information, please check out our FAQ's and the Kindness Toolkit for resources on how to start your own kindness fundraiser.

More

The airplane graveyard that 3 families call home is the subject of a stunning photo series.

From the skies to the ground, these airplanes continue to serve a purpose.

This article originally appeared on 09.18.15


What happens to airplanes after they're no longer fit to roam the skies?


An abandoned 747 rests in a Bangkok lot. Photo by Taylor Weidman/Getty Images.

Decommissioned planes are often stripped and sold for parts, with the remains finding a new home in what is sometimes referred to as an "airplane boneyard" or "graveyard." Around the world, these graveyards exist; they're made up of large, empty lots and tons of scrap metal.

Keep Reading Show less

Your weekly roundup of internet sunshine.

Hey everyone! Hope you're staying safe and healthy, and if you're not, at least you know you're not alone. I mean, omicron? Phew. Pandemics certainly know how to keep us on our toes.

If you need a respite or distraction from all that, we've got you covered. If immersing yourself in cute animal videos and feel-good stories of human awesomeness is wrong, who wants to be right? Nobody, that's who.

We all need a break from the less pleasant parts of life, and cheering ourselves up with simple, happy things is a tried and true way to push those endorphins and lift our mood for a bit.

Keep Reading Show less