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Collecting for charity

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Some people are addicted to Mountain Dew, but two La Grange ladies are hooked on collecting cans

By Tracy Harris

The sun glints off an aluminum can alongside Fendley Mill Road. For two La Grange women, this can is a sought-after prize.

It’s not just one can, though, it’s a whole beer case stuffed with empty cans.

“Look, a treasure!” says Sue Macuch.

Many La Grange residents have seen Macuch, along with Marian Bartley, clad in neon vests, picking up cans along the roadways for the past two years.

On this day, they’re about halfway through a three-mile walk that takes them from downtown La Grange, through Walsh Park and up Fendley Mill Road.

They have a loose schedule they follow, walking different areas on different days — sometimes depending on the trash schedule.

“We’re not losing weight, but we’re nimble,” Macuch says. Bartley deftly climbs down an incline and nabs a can with her grabbing tool.

“Ask me how old I am,” she asks. It’s not every day a woman volunteers her age, but she proudly declares she is 72.

Macuch says she is 60 — and both have been active their entire lives.

Bartley is an avid walker; Macuch also squaredances.

The two met two years ago at the La Grange Community Center, where they were both walking on the indoor track.

Macuch says it was a while before they started talking — Macuch had been wearing a headset that Bartley said seemed unfriendly.

But the two hit it off, and both prefer to walk outside when the weather permits.

Bartley’s daughter was collecting cans for extra income and pretty soon the women were picking them up, too.

When Bartley’s daughter decided to stop cashing in cans, the duo couldn’t stop.

“It’s addicting,” Macuch says.

Instead, they kept it up, walking five days a week and covering at least three or four miles a day.

They consider October their season-end for can collection and go on hiatus during the winter months.

In October, their can collecting netted $983 — at about two cents per can, that’s more than 49,000 cans.

“My husband offered to donate the $17 to get us to $1,000,” Macuch says, “But I said that defeated the purpose.”

Macuch estimates they collect about 75-100 cans on an average day.

They have it down to a science — Bartley carries a long grabbing tool; both carry bamboo walking sticks.

Macuch says bamboo is best because it is lightweight and doesn’t break — and because it’s the perfect diameter to fit in can openings to fish them out.

Most of the money went to charities for children, including buying Christmas gifts for disadvantaged youth.

They also remove the can tabs — a gallon of tabs pays for a woman to get a mammogram.

A small portion of their earnings went to a hard-earned lunch at Red Lobster.

The duo sees their walking time as social time — a chance to catch up on each other’s lives, vent and commiserate.

All the while, they’re looking for cans.

“We’re like magpies, we spot anything shiny,” Macuch says.

Bartley is quieter during the walk but not timid when it comes to getting cans. She tries to climb on the side of a Dumpster before remembering she has a sprained ankle.

Macuch has walked with a broken toe, she says, as if neither injury should have kept them at home.

Once, they saw a lot of cans down a ravine, so they tied rope to a guardrail to help get into the ravine — and back out.

It’s not just cans they find, either. They also collect scrap metal and have no qualms about carrying back any other prize finds.

Macuch says she has an area rug in her home that they found being thrown out; they also salvaged a “future home of the La Grange Fire Department” sign.

Macuch put the sign in a yard sale — and sold it before the sale actually opened.

A shopper told her that he collects anything with “La Grange” on it and bought the sign for $5 — more money for the fund.

Some finds are not so good though.

They remember finding a deer — not deer pieces, but an intact carcass — in the Dumpster next to the La Grange Service Center.

The duo is also another set of eyes for the city. They report stolen bicycles, possible aerosol huffing locations and injured wildlife.

Mayor Bill Lammlein says he appreciates their community spirit — and wishes there were more people like them.

“It’s just so super what they do with the money,” he says. “They kind of help us in a way because they are out there picking up that litter and they’re using it for a good cause.”

Lammlein said the duo is hitting a lot of birds with one stone — exercising, cleaning up litter and fundraising for charity all at once.

The duo has learned a lot about the city — and its residents.

“Most people drink Bud Light and Mountain Dew,” Macuch says. “And Coke in the winter.”

And they’ve definitely learned their way around the city, although sometimes the hard way.

“We’ll say, ‘Oh, just to the next turn’ ... then the next turn and the next,” she says.

One day that led to a longer-than-usual eight mile walk.

“We started at 8 a.m. and didn’t get back until 11:30,” she says.

Bartley and Macuch say they’re not sure what they’ll do with the money this year, although they’re considering using it to purchase supplies for local nursing homes.

They’re still planning on going to lunch, too.