Spreading hope one piece of trash at a time

Paul Gustafson, 59, astride his “Miami Sun” three-wheeler, is a familiar sight around LaPorte and adjacent bike paths. He pedals along, carrying several grocery bags in the roomy basket behind his seat. He is ready to pick up paper, bottles, cans, broken glass – any trash he sees.

“I carry a pair of heavy-duty gloves and some plastic ones as well, for when I have to pick up wet items,” Gustafson said. “My goal is to keep the roadways safe and peaceful.”

He laments the disappearance of the recycle bin that was recently removed from the parking lot by LaPorte Hardware on County Road 54 where he frequently made deposits. The bin was removed because it was being used as a garbage can. “People left items as large as television sets,” Gustafson said.

Until 1991, when a horrific car accident disabled Gustafson and made it impossible for him to work, he hauled raw milk for the Western Dairyman’s Cooperative. It was 2:30 a.m. when he was on Interstate 25 on his way to work when a vehicle heading the wrong way caused the accident that sent him to McKee Medical Center in Loveland. He emerged a year later after six cranial surgeries and almost total loss of vision in one eye and an impaired arm and leg. Therefore, he can no longer drive.

He credits his daughter, Melissa, who was then a 7-year-old Cache la Poudre Elementary School student with “reacquainting him with the world.”

He had to re-learn many simple, everyday tasks such as speaking and reading.

Rather than spending time feeling sorry for himself, by 1994 Gustafson was volunteering at CLP, happy to perform any tasks he could manage to help out the school staff and teachers. He still volunteers at CLP, these days clipping coupons for the school.

He lives alone in LaPorte in a modular home, once a homestead, that was moved to its present site in 1968 and restored by Gustafson. It’s close to LaPorte Presbyterian Church and Gustafson sees to it that the church grounds are kept tidy. He does the same for his neighbor.

He manages to grocery shop using the basket behind his bike, and he pedals to the bank and to doctors’ appointments. He doesn’t enjoy biking on the shoulders of busy roads, but says it is often unavoidable. He will be pleased when construction that has closed the bike path between Shields and College is complete. Making use of the Fort Collins bus and services for those who cannot drive is difficult and inconvenient for him, so he depends on his bike.

Melissa (now Melissa Fahrnkoph), a Wellington resident and new mother, is a bright spot in his life. He looks forward to playing with baby Clara Hope, who was born in February. Melissa, his only child, was adopted and was originally named Hope. The Gustafsons changed her name to Melissa as they were fans of Melissa on Little House on the Prairie. Melissa will soon welcome her husband’s parents to their new home on Mount Hope Street in Wellington.

Gustafson likes that story. He refuses to let his circumstances get him down. He likes to think he’s setting an example with every piece of trash he retrieves.

“My hope is that other people will see what I do, and it will make a difference,” he said.

Every town should have a Paul Gustafson.

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