Peace of mind, piece by piece

Katie Burkehonored for work along U.S. 95

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Katie Burke picks trash from off the hillside south of Coeur d'Alene during an outing Thursday along the two-mile stretch of Highway 95 she volunteered to remove liter from for the past two years.

COEUR d'ALENE - When there is trash along U.S. 95, between the milemarkers of 427 and 429, you will eventually find Katie Burke.

Drivers will first see the orange "Roadside cleanup" sign. Next, they'll notice the brunette in the yellow vest, yellow flags and carrying two large, bright orange plastic bags. She'll be wearing gloves, solid, sturdy shoes, and a garbage grabber stick.

As cars, trucks and SUVs whip past at 60 mph, Burke walks slowly on the road's shoulder, scanning the yellow, dead grass and brush for bits and chunks of trash.

There is plenty.

"I have a pet peeve about people who throw garbage out," she says on a cloudy, windy Thursday afternoon.

Burke works alone on both sides of this windy two-mile stretch as part of the state's Adopt A Highway program. She always has since she took it on two years ago.

"I have a hard time asking somebody for help, in particular having someone help me pick up other people's garbage," Burke says.

But for Katie Burke, this is about more than just having a litter-free U.S. 95. She does so in honor and in memory of her son, Toby Choquette, who died nearly two years ago at 21. He was a 2006 Coeur d'Alene High graduate, with high honors.

On those "bad days" when she misses her son and sadness sets in, she drives to her two-mile stretch of highway and picks up trash. Step by step. One piece at a time. Pick it up, put it in the bag.

There are plaques bearing her son's name marking the start of each side where his mom patrols.

"It helps me, just coming out," she said. "Before you know it, the time has gone, a couple hours."

The heartache, at least for awhile, is gone.

Burke's efforts have been noticed.

She was named the Adopt A Highway volunteer of the year, which usually goes to a group.

"She's the volunteer group of the year for 2010," said Barbara Babic, spokeswoman for the Idaho Transportation Department.

This summer, Burke will be honored with a plaque and praise during a meeting of the ITD board in Coeur d'Alene.

"On her own, Katie has picked up more than 1,000 pounds," Babic said. "I can't tell you how much I admire her."

She said Adopt A Highway attracts people who "care deeply about the community. This program really seems to bring out the best in so many people."

Burke, who also cleans a mile section of U.S. 95 with the Coeur d'Alene Rotary Club, has taken on the task for years. She did it when she lived in Whitefish, Mont., and Moses Lake, Wash.

Most groups come out twice a year. Not Burke.

"When the snow melts, whenever I see trash, I come out," she said. "The more I come out, the less time it takes me."

The Ironman volunteer extraordinaire finds the usual discarded trash such as wrappers, plastics and bottles, with the most popular being Wendy's wrappers, cups from the Coeur d'Alene Casino and playing cards from poker runs. There are also the occasional hypodermic needles and rubber gloves.

In one bag, she places recyclables, which pretty much means beer cans. In the other goes everything else. Over the past two years, that's added up to 1,120 pounds of garbage, more than most of the groups that are part of the state program.

"It'd be nice if they would just toss it out when filling up at the gas station," she said, with some exasperation in her voice.

But thoughts of her son are frequent, and his death still hurts.

When parents lose a child at a young age, they often keep their feelings inside, she said.

"It's hard to want to talk to people. It's hard to want to talk to somebody about something so difficult," Burke said.

So when she needs to be alone, she parks her SUV off U.S. 95, dons her vest and flags and sets out the caution sign, and starts walking, plastic bags in one hand. A few hours later, the garbage is gone, leaving behind a clean and better place.

And Katie Burke feels a little lighter, too.

"It makes me feel good that I actually do make a difference," she said.

Katie Burke's two-mile section of Highway 95 she "adopted" to clean was done in the memory of her son Toby Choquette who died two years ago.

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