Monica Garcia can be frequently found along the Pajaro River watershed, chucking tires, concrete, beer bottles and other trash out of the habitat and transporting it to where it belongs: the landfill.
She does it all from the seat of her motorized wheelchair, and in between regular chemotherapy, blood transfusions and surgeries.
Garcia has been battling lupus for more than 20 years, an autoimmune disease where the body attacks its own tissues, causing damage to the heart, lungs and other organs.
But the debilitating condition doesn’t slow her down.
“I’ve always said I’m not going to let a disability stop me from doing what I need to do in my life,” Garcia said. “It’s hard for me to stop. This disease isn’t going to stop me.”
She works with her father Herman Garcia, the founder of Gilroy-based Coastal Habitat Education and Environmental Restoration (CHEER), cleaning up more than 1,300 square miles of watershed from Morgan Hill down into San Benito County and Watsonville, taking on the never-ending challenge of removing garbage from the rivers and creeks before it makes its way into the Monterey Bay.
Garcia has become a guiding light for CHEER, which is now sharing her story with the community and attempting to change the habits of polluters through a campaign that asks the question, “What’s your excuse?”
“She’s our soul and inspiration,” Herman Garcia said. “She inspires our other volunteers to do more.”
CHEER volunteers are donning T-shirts with a picture of trash piled in the Pajaro River, with the statement: “You drink this. Where’s your community pride?”
The back of the shirt lists the “watershed casualties,” including the Pajaro and San Benito rivers, as well as various area creeks, imploring the community to stop dumping trash into these critical habitats.
According to Herman, CHEER has had to downsize the number of volunteers on its cleanups due to Covid-19, but still has “no problem” removing 1,000 pounds of garbage daily. Pre-Covid, dozens of volunteers would take out 3,000 to 5,000 pounds a day.
“We have no problem finding the garbage,” he said. “It’s everywhere. It’s not getting better, it’s getting worse.”
Frequently, after cleaning up an area, volunteers will return later in the day, only to find trash once again dumped there, Monica said. Some polluters will even dump their trash next to signs warning of illegal dumping fines, almost like they are mocking it, she added.
A majority of the trash is not from the homeless, but from construction contractors as well as historical farming dump sites, according to Monica.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize what the long-term effects are of our waters being so disgusting,” she said. “We just want change. It’s helping your future, your kids, your grandkids. Don’t you want something better for them?”
Fees to dump trash at a landfill can also be a deterrent, as well as a lack of free mattress disposal sites in South County.
Herman praised Recology South Valley for waiving all fees for CHEER at the San Martin Transfer Station.
“Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do this,” he said.
CHEER’s cleanup efforts have resulted in the return of steelhead trout to the watershed, which Herman said is an indication that the water is in good quality.
Still, the constant pollution has devastating effects on the drinking water supply, he said.
“It’s all about quality of life for everyone,” he said. “If we don’t all chip in, we aren’t going to make it. It’s something we can address every day.”
“People don’t think they will make a difference,” Monica said. “If everybody chipped in a little part, it wouldn’t be as bad as it is.”
Monica, a Gilroy native, was diagnosed with lupus in 1999, and the disease has steadily progressed over the years. While going to the hospital for a procedure in 2013, her lungs collapsed, and at one point the doctors were unsure if she would survive.
Her mission keeps her going.
“I grew up loving the water and being out on our boat,” she said. “To see where it has gone now…I used to fish in the reservoir, it’s sad. Those are things I wanted to do with my son but I can’t because it’s not there.
“If I can make a little difference and hopefully help it come back for future generations, that’s what I’m going to do.”
CHEER is looking for volunteers. For information, visit cheercentral.org.