DuPage County environmentalist Kay McKeen was "beyond flattered" that so many of her neighbors are thankful for her, especially since the fruits of her tireless work may not always be obvious.
As founder and president of School and Community Assistance for Recycling and Composting Education, or SCARCE, and a member of the Wheaton Environmental Improvement Commission, Keen has led an effort to design and build the Wheaton Recycling Center, received the Outstanding School Recycling and Reduction Education Program Award in 1993 from the Illinois Recycling Association, and The Governor's Pollution Prevention Award in 1996.
She takes everything she's learned from those experiences and her own never-ending research and shares the information with anyone who will listen, all in an effort to keep the planet clean for future generations.
Naperville Park District Executive Director Ray McGury credits McKeen with inspiring his staff to create an employee green team, which sparked a series of ongoing environmental practices and new projects that have saved the district energy, materials and at least $60,000 last year alone.
"'Green' has become an everyday buzzword, but few people are truly committed to living green and making an impact in their community like Kay does," McGury said. "From providing student education at all levels, to spearheading community recycling efforts, to giving textbooks and other materials the ability to be reused and enjoyed by those who need them, Kay's passion makes a positive impact all across DuPage County and beyond.
"She's an inspiration to everyone who strives to make our community and our world a better and healthier place."
Saving energy and natural resources is "not rocket science," McKeen said. Indeed, saving the Earth can be as easy as turning off a light or not leaving water running while brushing your teeth.
"I think everyone can make a difference, and I think everybody has different things they're good at. I happen to care very much about kids and health and a healthy future," she said. "I've got two kids and three grandbabies and one on the way and I want them to have clean water and clean air. I'm desperate for them to have clean water and clean air and healthy soil, so that's a big motivating factor."
This week, she added St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Naperville to her list of groups she's helped go green by walking the property and taking a "green audit" with the church's green team to point out ways the church can become more energy efficient and save some money.
While touring schools, churches and other facilities to stress conservation, McKeen has brainstormed and implemented hundreds of outreach projects that continue today. Some projects began before SCARCE was created; others have taken shape over the past 20 years.
Take, for example, the Earth Flag program. The group created it to reward schools that take steps to carry out environmental education and waste-reduction activities. Hundreds of schools and park districts across the county have earned a flag from SCARCE over the years, and McKeen hopes to deliver another one to St. Timothy's soon.
"It's such a thrill to be invited in and asked to help," she said. "If you care enough to make the call, I'm going to care enough to come in and give you 200 percent of what I've got."
One such place where she's given that 200 percent is at Roselle Middle School, where Principal Kathleen Schneiter has credited McKeen with not only changing the school's attitude on recycling, but also saving Roselle Elementary District 12 thousands of dollars as well. Working with McKeen over the years, the school has earned three Earth Flags.
"We are absolutely thankful for Kay and her passion. She's great," Schneiter said. "Her programs have taught us all some very basic things we can do to preserve the Earth, and kids take those lessons home to their parents and the word spreads. If it weren't for her, we wouldn't be recycling nearly as much as we do now."
As for McKeen, who was slightly embarrassed to hear her neighbors were thankful for her, she also has a list.
"I'm thankful for my husband, Greg, who helps me with every single project I take on," she said. "And I'm thankful for everyone over the years who has taken my message to heart to make the world a more safe place for my family, too."