Photo by Corinne Nicholson
LAWRENCEVILLE -- In 1980, urban blight was not a part of Gwinnett leaders' vocabulary.
The biggest eyesores in the then-small county were junk cars, often used to describe where to turn to reach the house of a friend.
But even then, commissioners wanted to be good stewards of the growing suburban landscape.
They created Gwinnett Clean and Beautiful 30 years ago this week, an organization that became a local affiliate of Keep America Beautiful two months later.
"It was a visionary thought then," said Bartow Morgan, a banker who serves as the current chairman of the 50-member board of directors. "Back then ... who was thinking of tagging graffiti in Norcross?"
According to Director Connie Wiggins, "Some folks have said we were green before green was cool."
The group, which has tracked litter in the community for three decades and worked to foster recycling programs, has found a renewed mission as the county's older communities started on a downward spiral. Several years ago, the group was tasked with helping eradicate graffiti by working with prison inmates to paint over gang tags, a program that led to a 2005 graffiti prevention award from Keep America Beautiful.
Now, with foreclosed homes in even the richest communities and illegal trash dumping becoming a serious issue, the group has even more passion in keeping the community clean.
The leaders know that a beautiful landscape can help attract business and make the community more safe, Morgan said.
Despite a rough year in 2009, where a lawsuit over a garbage plan and subsequent distancing from Gwinnett County government led to a reduction in the nonprofit's staff by 75 percent, board members are creating plans to beef up Adopt A Road programs to compensate for the government's inability to pay to keep medians and rights of way mowed and litter picked up.
They are turning toward the lifeblood of the organization: the volunteers who have cleaned streams and roads and recycled Christmas trees, stenciled storm drains and so much more.
If all 2,500 homeowner associations in Gwinnett adopt a half-mile before their subdivisions' entrance and a half-mile after, the impact would be huge, said board member Pam Ledbetter.
"That's the entrance into their community," she said. "It seems like a no-brainer to me."
Despite all the programs and efforts, Wiggins and Ledbetter said the real difference will be made when people simply decide to take action themselves.
Ledbetter shared a story about a member of her Collins Hill area homeowner association who decided to try a little experiment.
He "planted" a pizza box just outside the subdivision's entrance and waited. For weeks, people walked by with their dogs, cars pulled in and out and no one stopped to pick up the piece of trash.
"It's more about people taking action and trying to solve the problems with the neighbors," Wiggins said, explaining that people often turn to government -- which is now overburdened -- for a solution. "We know a better environment starts in our backyard."
One way the organization has changed attitudes about the environment is through a decades-long curriculum taught in Gwinnett County Public Schools.
A full-time environmental educator is employed by the nonprofit, with her salary coming from revenues generated by the sale of recycled materials at the Recycling Bank of Gwinnett.
"It's amazing, the things they do. It's a life attitude for (the students)," said board member Mary Root. "The students are the ones that taught the parents."
It was that instinct in children to teach their parents about recycling that led to a huge growth in that area in the 1990s. Recently, though, the statistics on household recycling in Gwinnett have gone down dramatically.
Wiggins said a lot of that can be attributed to confusion and the fact that recycling isn't always an easy feat. A new county trash plan, in which recycling is mandatory, could help with that once it begins in July.
"It's all about a philosophy, a culture you are building," said David Seago, another board member. "This isn't your typical garden club. This is a group that takes action and makes a difference."