Sarah Spencer in 2014.
Maybe you have seen the signs each fall asking for volunteers to participate in the Sarah Sweep on First Broad River. You may have participated or seen the photos of the piles of tires, appliances and trash that are pulled out of the river each year in this endeavor.
But did you ever wonder who "Sarah" was? Or perhaps you knew her, as it seems many in this community did. Sarah Spencer was a free spirit, lover of nature and water, champion of the underdog who loved dancing in the rain, being outside, and most of all - being on the river. The Sarah Sweep was organized by some of those friends, friends who were looking for a way to remember Sarah after she died in 2016 at the age of 26 in a tragic car accident. Three other river-loving friends died in the same accident.
"She always loved the water," says Sarah's mother Judy Spencer. "She and her friend Nick Carpenter were planning to start a business taking people on the river in kayaks. She was very excited at the prospect of sharing her love of the river with others. She had already saved enough money to do that."
When fall 2016 rolled around, David Caldwell - the Broad Riverkeeper and a friend of Sarah's - approached Sarah's family about having a river-cleaning event in memory of her.
"I had met Sarah in 2015, just after receiving my license to become a Waterkeeper Affiliate," says Caldwell. "Sarah was working in Uptown Shelby at the time, and I invited her and Nick Carpenter to kayak the First Broad above Shelby. We had a great time, and I learned about Sarah's passion for the environment and our rivers. We did several outings in both the Broad and First Broad rivers, and Sarah would always stop to pick up any trash that she saw along the way."
"She couldn't understand why people would litter and toss tires, furniture, appliances in the river," says Judy Spencer. "She once found a whole bag of trash in the river and was so frustrated that people had dumped it off of a bridge instead of taking it to a dump."
"Sarah had participated in her last official clean-up on my birthday as her gift to me," says her mother.
It really did seem like a river-cleaning event was a perfect way to honor the memory of Sarah.
And so, in the fall of 2016, the first annual Sarah Sweep was held. It was a cleaning of the river between Double Shoals and Zion Church Road.
"This event was in remembrance and honor of Sarah and her friends and their love for our river," says Caldwell. "We had a great volunteer turnout, about 25 paddlers, and afterwards we had a cookout and live music from local musicians."
Caldwell says the event continued to grow until 2020, when the Covid virus "put a damper on things."
"We did small 'on your own' Sarah Sweeps in 2020 and 2021, but with no after-party," he says. "This year will be our seventh annual sweep, and we are planning for a big time!"
This year's Sarah Sweep will take place on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022.
"We will meet for the clean-up behind Double Shoals Mill (199 Old Mill Rd., Shelby) at 11 a.m.," says Caldwell. "We will drop our boats there beside the river and take vehicles down to Zion Church Road, then catch a shuttle back to the mill to begin."
If you can't participate in the clean-up effort, you can still attend the event's after-party.
"For those who can't make the clean-up, we hope you can come out between 5:30 - 6:30 p.m.to enjoy a delicious barbecue chicken & ribs dinner with all the trimmings prepared by local favorite Doug Fortenberry," says Caldwell. "Also starting at 5:30 p.m. will be live guitar music performed by Sarah Spencer's father, Steve Spencer. Steve will perform until 6:45 p.m., and then at 7 p.m. the Shrimp Pistols will take the stage to close out the event with a bang! Tickets for the after-party are $15 for adults, while kids under 8 and all clean-up volunteers eat free."
Volunteers can sign up at MountainTrue.org. The rain date is Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.