Sharon Rea has been president of Green Bellevue for eight months, and she uses an apt metaphor to describe the organization she has been tapped to lead and the people who founded it.
“The seeds that they planted — literally — everything is carrying forward,” she said.
Green Bellevue is celebrating its 10th birthday this month. The nonprofit organization aims to make Bellevue a more sustainable and environmentally friendly city through organizing volunteers to plant trees, hosting an Earth Day extravaganza each spring and educating the community on the manifold benefits of recycling, among others.
Its success sprouted from the first seed that was planted when former Bellevue Mayor Gary Mixan approached a new councilman, Don Preister, to form a green committee.
Mixan doesn’t remember exactly how he got the idea, but he knew Preister was involved and passionate about environmental issues and saw how going green could help the city government. Operational costs were rising and the city was housed in aging, inefficient buildings.
Gas, for example, was around $2.60 per gallon in September 2009, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, but rose steadily as the economy recovered from the Great Recession and would be more than $4 per gallon in May 2011.
Mixan, who was mayor from 2008 to 2010, said he wanted to explore if grant funding was available to help implement strategies and technology to make the city greener and less expensive.
Mixan approached Preister to form a group to look into the issue.
“He was just the natural choice,” Mixan said.
Preister said it didn’t take long for him to say yes to Mixan, and his first goal was to gather all the environmentally conscious people he knew for brainstorming sessions.
“(Mixan) knew the right person to ask and I knew the other right people to ask,” Preister said.
One of those people who joined was Ruth Richter, who came to the organization through her research into ways to improve Bellevue’s minimal recycling program. She served as the group’s vice president for nine years, before stepping down to allow for new leadership to take over. She was replaced as vice president by Michelle Foss, while Preister, who was president, was replaced by Rea.
The current recycling program used by Bellevue residents was a Green Bellevue initiative and is one of its crowning achievements over the past 10 years. It was implemented with the guidance and involvement of Epiphany Ramos, Bellevue’s wastewater operations manager.
“I wanted to figure out why we had such minuscule recycling going on and see what kind of change we could make, so I was very, very happy to discover Green Bellevue because you can only make change like that with a team,” Richter said.
Preister said another notable initiative was the rain gardens at the Eastern Nebraska Veterans’ Home.
The rain gardens are the largest retrofit gardens in the Midwest, Preister said, and filter and capture 2 million gallons of rainwater a year, which is important for water quality and erosion and serves as a pollinator.
The organization Preister and Richter handed over to the new leadership has more than 1,000 volunteers on its email list, has planted more than 1,100 trees on city property, received millions in grant dollars and formed a partnership with Bellevue University, where Rea is the assistant dean in the College of Business.
Education will be a high priority, leaders said, and they are confident the partnerships with BU, which received a grant for a sustainability lab, and local high schools will develop future leadership.
The rain gardens and recycling are big deals, leaders said, but the pièce de résistance would be the groups next grand plan: a solar farm in the Bellevue area. The group hopes to work with Omaha Public Power District to make it happen.
“I see us putting a lot of effort to that initiative in the next few months,” Rea said. “We’re determined.”
Mixan gave kudos to Green Bellevue and all it has accomplished.
“Everybody’s much, much more aware of how we have to take care of our environment as well,” he said.