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Watershed Warriors Film Spotlights Fox River

Mar 31, 2023 ● By Megy Karydes
People picking up trash.

Photo Credit Friends of the Fox River

Protecting and restoring river ecosystems sits alongside reducing carbon emissions as an integral driver of the solution for improving community and environmental health in the face of climate change. “Our rivers can’t speak for themselves about their overall health and conservation. We’re trying to give the river a voice,” says Gary Swick, president and educator of the nonprofit Friends of the Fox River, the subject of Watershed Warriors, a film that is part of the Rivers are Life series dedicated to telling the stories of river heroes around the world. The film premiers at on April 20.

Illinois has 87,110 miles of rivers and streams within its borders. Deep in the middle of the American Midwest and 40 miles from Chicago lies the Fox River watershed, a historically significant waterway that helped Chicago and Illinois grow into a major transportation center. It is more than 200 miles long with more than 100 public access points.

Due to sewage and industrial runoff over the decades, the Fox became overwhelmingly polluted, sharing the fate of so many other rivers today. In April 1999, American Rivers declared the Fox River the seventh-most endangered river in America. Like so many rivers throughout the world, it can’t defend itself, so organizations like the Friends of the Fox River, dedicated to creating a watershed of caretakers through programs and activities that educate and empower citizens about river issues, step in.

Jenni Kempf Schiavone, director of education programs operations for Friends of the Fox River, asks, “What is the first step in inspiring people to care?” She and Swick represent the work being done in and around the Fox River, and share how many people have become disconnected and fearful of our natural environment; they are working to build relationships with the Fox River.

Swick says, “Connecting people is the first step.” The film is an important step to helping connect people to our rivers.

“Clean water is not a given,” advises Kempf Schiavone, who runs the field education programs for Friends of the Fox River. “Many of us maybe feel that it is, but there are people all over the world that do not have access to clean water in the way we do. And the only way to ensure that privilege remains for generations to come is to do the work to protect it as the critical resource that it is.”

A lifelong educator, Swick uses the river itself as his classroom and inspires numerous students, peers and families to establish a personal environmental ethic in all those he teaches and works with. Many of his former students have become professionals in the environmental field, including Schiavone.

Every year the organization sponsors the Fox River Clean-Up Day where hundreds of volunteers and community members come together to learn, clean and discuss the future of their watershed. There are several ways people can continue to stay involved and join the movement to support our world’s rivers.


Checking Water Quality. Photo Credit Friends of the Fox River.

Here are three, simple steps to get started:

1. Subscribe to the Rivers are Life newsletter to receive regular updates on river heroes around the world or click on the Join the Movement link at

2. Watch and share Watershed Warriors with friends and communities.

3. Reach out to Friends of the Fox River to learn how to get involved with upcoming cleanup events in May, get trained to monitor water quality in the Fox River watershed or participate in one of their many activities in or near the river.


Megy Karydes is a Chicago-based writer and author. Find her at