Friday, June 12, 2009

Illinois man rescues flags improperly thrown out

ELGIN, Ill. — Jeff Olsen doesn't pay much attention to the garbage he collects unless he spots red and white stripes or white stars on a blue background.

Whenever he sees a U.S. flag in the trash, Olsen retrieves it and takes it back to Waste Management offices in this Chicago suburb. He has rescued more than 250 flags in the past 18 months.

Olsen, 33, who was born in Grimsby, Ontario, started recovering flags soon after he was hired in 2005. Doug Zywiciel, a co-worker, brought a battered flag into the office, and Olsen asked him about it.

"He said, 'If you can believe it, people throw them out,' " Olsen recalls. Zywiciel and Jamie Lauderdale, another driver, explained that as Army veterans, they are offended when people don't dispose of flags properly.

"It just clicked," Olsen says, and he decided to join their effort to save discarded flags. American Legion Post 57 and Elks Lodge 737 will honor him on Flag Day, which is Sunday. Next month, he will be recognized at the state American Legion convention.

Flags collected by Olsen and other Waste Management drivers go into a box. When it's full, the flags are taken to the American Legion.

Don Sleeman, Post 57's adjutant, says enough flags to fill a 35-gallon container 40 times are dropped off every year.

Flags made of cotton or wool are burned in disposal ceremonies; those made of synthetic materials go to a local crematorium, which incinerates them for free.

Some people know how to properly discard flags, Sleeman says, but others "don't respect the flag, or they are ignorant of what to do with it." The American Legion distributes pamphlets on flag etiquette, and members visit schools to tell fifth- and sixth-graders about the flag's history and appropriate care.

Mike Schuiteman, Olsen's supervisor, says drivers aren't allowed to scavenge items from the garbage they collect, but flags are an exception. "All our drivers have gotten together to do this," he says. "They realize this is a symbol of our nation."

Olsen's wife, Stacie, a former Army medic, helped him understand the flag's importance. When he finds one, "I feel kind of patriotic," says Olsen, who is a citizen of the USA and Canada. He and Stacie have two children, Tyler, 5, and Abbey, 2.

Several found flags are on display at the Waste Management facility here; Olsen has one in his garage, next to a Canadian flag.

"It's the symbol of our nation, so you have to take care of it," Olsen says. "You dump it, you see it, you grab it and you get it to the right place."

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