Friends of the Kaw is a non-profit organization, founded 27 years ago in Lawrence, Kansas, by a group of North Lawrence residents looking to oppose dredging on the Kansas River, and now acts as a grassroots environmental organization “working to protect and preserve the Kansas River.” For the last four years, the group's executive director and Riverkeeper has been Dawn Buehler. The executive director part sees Buehler managing the daily activities of Friends of the Kaw. Riverkeeper, though? That might take some explaining.
“Waterkeeper Alliance is a worldwide alliance that has over 330 waterkeepers, worldwide,” Buehler explains. Keepers can include Coastalkeepers, Baykeepers, or any body of water. There's only one in the state of Kansas, which is the Kansas Riverkeeper, and that is her. “The way it works is that we're all members of the Alliance, but supported by a local non-profit – in this case, Friends of the Kaw, who joined the Alliance in 2003.”
The main job of the Riverkeeper is to protect and preserve the river, and Buehler, along with Friends of the Kaw, does that by mediating suspected pollution by working with different agencies to make sure it gets cleaned up or investigated, and holding communities accountable for the health of the river.
“I explain it to people like this: we're polite and we want to work in collaboration,” Buehler explains of the Riverkeeper position. “But we push, and we push hard until things get resolved. A huge part of what we do is advocating. We protect the river, we advocate for it, and we help people discover it. ”
Buehler has held a connection with the Kansas River which goes back as far as she can remember, growing up in De Soto on a 500-acre crop farm along the river's banks. She's had a relationship with the river her whole life, she says.
“Some of my earliest memories, we were fishing on the river from a jon boat or on the banks,” she recalls. “We would canoe on the river, we camped on the sandbars.”
Looking back on her time on and near the river, Buehler says, she realizes that every time she went through a hardship in her life, she'd go to it to reflect.
“One of my grandmothers passed away, and I would go to the Kansas River bridge in De Soto,” Buehler says, slightly choked-up and with the beginnings of tears in her eyes. “I would sit there and I would watch the sunset, and it was amazing. It was breathtaking to me. It was the most peaceful place to sit and think and reflect about how your life has changed so much.”
So, Buehler had a really deep relationship with the river already, but she worked as an accountant for 15 years. She went back to school to get a Bachelor of Science degree in Fish and Wildlife Conservation, and decided she was going to do the work that she was doing on the weekends.
“I was working as an accountant, and on the weekends and was volunteering for Friends of the Kaw, the Nature Conservancy, or for the Baker Wetlands – anywhere I could find volunteer work,” says Buehler of her story. It was mostly outdoors, and even now, she says, she finds that most of the Friends of the Kaw volunteers are like that: “They'll tell me that they have a full-time desk job and that this is their outlet, and I'm like, 'I know exactly what you're talking about, because that's what landed me here.'”
One of those many volunteers is Blue Collar Press president, Sean Ingram, who began showing up to Friends of the Kaw events about a year ago.
“Our relationship with Blue Collar started when Sean started working with us as a volunteer” is how Buehler explains how Friends of the Kaw came to work with the press. “He came and volunteered with us at an event, and just kept coming back. I don't even think that I knew the name of the business he was the owner of until six months after I met him.”
Once Buehler realized the possibilities of a volunteer with a business like Blue Collar Press, she reached out to Sean, because Friends of the Kaw is an organization with a diverse set of needs. Right off the bat, she says, the press offered to make shirts for the group's Kaw River Guides, who are the volunteers on the river for things like the Friends' regular educational paddle trips.
“They donated them all, and that was very humbling to have such a large donation, and to be able to give back to our volunteers ,” relates Buehler. “People who get paid nothing and do it just because they care about the river, care about our organization, care about helping people connect with the river. It's completely selfless volunteering at its finest, and they're just amazing people.”
Blue Collar Press debuted a brand-new pop-up concept at the Friends of the Kaw's third annual Beers of the Kaw fundraiser, held at Lawrence's Abe & Jake's Landing in early November of 2018. The company brought screenprinting equipment on-site and made t-shirts, bags, and koozies while people waited, and it was a smashing success – as was the event, which sold out its 650 tickets, and brought in another 150 people in the form of vendors and volunteers.
“That was absolutely incredibly popular,” Buehler says of the pop-up. “People loved it. There was nothing left. It was amazing. They were fabulous – I look over, and there must have been 20 people in line, every time I looked over there.”
Things look big for Friends of the Kaw: they just hired their first Development Director, literally the day before we sat down and spoke. They've also already announced the next Beers of the Kaw event – November 3, 2019 – for those who like their beer local, benefiting a good cause, and tied to education. Also, with the start of the new legislative session, Buehler has some folks to meet and advocate to.
“There'll be some new relationships to build there,” concludes the Riverkeeper. “There's a lot of things that are competing for the money that we have in this state, and I fully recognize that there are a lot of other things that need that attention, but we hope that water is a part of the conversation, too.”
Story: Nick Spacek
portrait: Austin Snell
photos: FOK instagram