It started when Dylan Stiegemeier hiked a bent-up old stove top 3 miles out of the foothills near Pocatello, Idaho. He and a buddy were preparing for comprehensive exams, the last step in his Ph.D. program at Idaho State University before writing his dissertation.
The 33-year-old Idaho native with a humble affect, long, curly hair and a penchant for environmental conservation had become a bit disillusioned by academia. All this talking and no action made him anxious, and during that hike, trash that had littered the landscape for decades bugged the crap out of Stiegemeier.
He finished the exams (but still has to write that damn dissertation) and returned to his home in Post Falls. In the meantime, he applied for jobs in environmental conservation. He even offered to work for free. No dice.
"If nobody's going to let me crack the lineup, then I'll create something for myself," Stiegemeier recalls thinking.
And so was born the Theodores: a grassroots effort promoting small acts of environmental conservation in order to create a huge impact.
The Theodores — a nod to one of Stiegemeier's heroes, Teddy Roosevelt, known in part for his efforts on behalf of ecological preservation — takes a lesson from one of the Rough Rider's famous quotes:
"Do what you can with what you have, where you are."
It's the idea that many small, relatively convenient acts can produce a huge impact.
Since 2014, when Stiegemeier launched the effort, the Theodores has been about picking up trash. So far, photos of people from at least 20 states and 20 countries have surfaced. They pick up trash, then pose for a picture with an orange flag with Teddy's mug plastered on it.
In the future, Stiegemeier says, he wants the Theodores to stand for efforts beyond clean-ups.
"I just want people to feel engaged, and I don't really like to tell them what they have to do," he says. "My wife came up with the tag line: 'How do you Teddy?'"
Stiegemeier's mom stopped by his house in Post Falls one afternoon earlier this week. She came to say hi to her 8-month-old granddaughter, Louisa, who bounces around the room in a "Teddy Patrol" onesie. She's also here to drop off a couple of bags of clothes. She just finished sewing yellow Teddy patches on an old plaid shirt and jacket Stiegemeier bought at a thrift store for two bucks each. One more way to get the word out.
Here's how it works: Request a "Teddy package," which includes a flag and a letter (donations are appreciated) and a suggestion to read The Big Burn, Tim Egan's book about the massive fire that spread throughout national forests in Washington, Idaho and Montana. The book also traces Roosevelt's role in preserving these lands.
Then go out and do something to promote conservation and take a picture with your Teddy flag. Stiegemeier says most of these efforts have been picking up trash, but some people recycle. Others plant wildflowers.
Stiegemeier is quick to tell you that he didn't do this all by himself; in fact, he couldn't have. His mother sews, and his brother, Austin, drew the image of Teddy Roosevelt that's printed on all the flags and merchandise. (Austin Stiegemeier is well-known in the Spokane art scene and teaches at Gonzaga University.) A few other friends pitch in as well.
Ali Koski, co-owner of the screen-printing business called the Traveling T, lets Stiegemeier use her shop and equipment to make the flags and merchandise basically for free. Without her help, Stiegemeier says, none of this would be possible.
"At first I tried to talk him out of it," Koski says. "But he didn't take no for an answer. He eats, drinks and sleeps conservation."
Now, for Koski's two kids, both under the age of 10, "Teddy" has become a verb.
Whenever they go on a hike or even a stroll through downtown, her kids will proudly exclaim: "We just Teddy'd!"
The Theodores is a nonprofit in the truest sense of the word. Stiegemeier, who doesn't actually make a profit, continues to donate his spare time and extra money toward the effort. Applying for 501(c)(3) status is next on the list, he says.
As far as long-term plans? He's got a few of those.
He hopes to partner with Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts (Roosevelt was an ardent supporter of the Scouts) to see about establishing a Teddy patch, and he's thinking of developing a curriculum for grade schools. The kids will learn about Teddy Roosevelt, then go out and do a Teddy cleanup.
He was just awarded a few thousand dollars by CDA 2030, an organization dedicated to promoting growth in Coeur d'Alene. He wants to use that money to pay someone to write code that will allow people worldwide to post directly to his website. Right now, it's up to Stiegemeier to gather all those posts from Facebook, which he says is time-consuming.
"Then we could actually start tracking some metrics," he says. "You would be able to see, like for example, over the course of a week or a month, how many people are Teddying and where."
Ultimately, Stiegemeier hopes to build a Teddy hub on the 5 acres he purchased in Plummer, Idaho — sort of like a sustainability center. The land is sitting mostly empty now, full of potential.
"I try not to get too discouraged," he says. "The problems are really big and complex. With any big conservation issues, you think, 'Oh, what can one person do?' But if everyone felt like that, we wouldn't get anything done." ♦
Positions: founder of the Theodores, adjunct faculty at North Idaho College and Spokane Falls Community College, Ph.D candidate and Lakeland High School boys soccer coach.
I give back because... that's the only way to create something sustainable, but mostly because it's fun and rewarding.
I look up to... my parents and David Brower. I like Teddy [Roosevelt], but I have a lot of respect for David Brower because he got the wilderness protections pushed through Congress.
I wish that... the organization continues to grow and that people like what we're trying to do.