GOSHEN — More than 200 tons of leaves were saved from going up in smoke after a county-sponsored collection contest returned in the fall.

Competition was fierce this year as 13 teams each tried to get a share of $50,000 in prize money. Altogether, they gathered 217.79 tons of leaves from unincorporated parts of the county between September and December.

It was about 37 tons more than what was taken to the landfill in the first year of the competition, in fall 2018.

The top team, which gathered 70.64 tons, was Central Christian Church. They received a check for the lion’s share of the prize money, $15,292, during the Elkhart County Board of Commissioners meeting Monday.

Pastor Doug Cripe said the environmental aim of the leaf contest fits well with the goals of the church. He said members of the church have been “green” for years, trying to reduce their own waste while also going out and collecting scrap metal.

They took fourth place in the 2018 competition. This time, the massive amount of leaves they gathered required 136 trips to the landfill.

“It was a lot of fun. It brought together a community spirit, we had folks showing up to help with leaves that we don’t really see often,” he said. “We had all ages participating, from some younger kids who would jump up and down to stomp them down while singing about collecting leaves, to some older folks who would help rake their yards and get them to the curb.”

Church groups dominated the top spots, and all were returning teams from last time.

Also receiving checks Monday were the youth group of Yellow Creek Mennonite Church, which gathered 42.03 tons and received $9,215; Prairie Camp, a program of Missionary Church, North Central District Inc., which collected 39.58 tons and received $8,694; and Sunnyside Mennonite Leaf Relief, which collected 16.71 tons and got a check for $3,837.

The churches plan to put the money toward programs such as ministry work and building repairs, commissioners learned.

Other teams were made up of community groups, neighborhoods or next-door neighbors who started picking up their own leaves and decided to just keep going. They included:

n Pinecrest Neighbors, 9.44 tons, $2,292

n Smokeless Leafs, 8.07 tons, $2,001

n Cornerstone Leafers, 7.33 tons, $1,844

n Elkhart Calvary UMC, 6.71 tons, $1,712

n Hakuna Matata, 5.77 tons, $1,513

n Team R&D, 4.29 tons, $1,198

n Fair Oaks Association, 2.72 tons, $865

n Elkhart East Youth Group, 2.41 tons, $799

n Leaf Monsters, 2.09 tons, $731

Allison Egan oversaw the contest both years as program director of civic innovation for enFocus, which helped brainstorm the burn alternative in 2017. County officials had been looking for a way to encourage people in unincorporated areas not to burn their leaves without having to resort to a ban.

“The prompt I was given was, what are some voluntary, cost-effective methods to reduce the amount of leaf burning occuring in unincorporated areas of Elkhart County,” she said. “Not a problem really in the cities, where ordinances prohibiting leaf burning. It doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense in the county, so we wanted to find some alternatives that would really work well for people.”

Egan noted that, with almost 350 tons of leaves being brought to the landfill in 2018, the contest resulted in twice the amount that would otherwise wind up there. The total tonnage in 2019, including competition and non-competition leaves, increased again to about 555.

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