Cleaning up South DeKalb becomes group’s Sunday mission

A group of neighbors who call themselves the Central Dekalb Volunteer Cleanup Crew pick up trash at Hairston Park in Stone Mountain. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Caption
A group of neighbors who call themselves the Central Dekalb Volunteer Cleanup Crew pick up trash at Hairston Park in Stone Mountain. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

On the Seventh Day, a handful of DeKalb County residents aren’t resting. They’re on a mission to clean up their community – one cigarette butt, one empty beer bottle, one broken-down recliner at a time.

Every Sunday morning for the past nine months, this small but determined group of about 10 has gathered, despite the pandemic, at Hairston Park, Redan Road, and other high-traffic areas of Central DeKalb. Armed with large garbage bags, trash-grabbing tools, and willing spirits, they’re picking up roadside refuse and trying to make a difference.

“The good news is it’s gotten better over time,” said organizer Patrick Medley Sr. of Stone Mountain.

Karen Edwards (left) and Patrick Medley Sr. clean up debris from a car crash as they work with a group of his neighbors picking up trash at Hairston Park in Stone Mountain.  PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Caption
Karen Edwards (left) and Patrick Medley Sr. clean up debris from a car crash as they work with a group of his neighbors picking up trash at Hairston Park in Stone Mountain. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Fellow volunteer John Deas concurs.

“I used to get a large trash bag filled to the top, and, now, it’s maybe half-full,” the 76-year-old said. “I don’t have any empirical data, but it seems that, in general, people are beginning to take care of the neighborhood a little better now that they see what we’ve been doing.”

The Sunday morning volunteers are young and old, male and female, and hard to miss. They wear bright orange T-shirts, emblazoned with the name they’ve adopted – Central DeKalb Volunteer Clean Up Crew.

Karen Edwards uses a grabber to pick up a bottle as she works a group of his neighbors picking up trash at Hairston Park in Stone Mountain. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Caption
Karen Edwards uses a grabber to pick up a bottle as she works a group of his neighbors picking up trash at Hairston Park in Stone Mountain. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Medley, who works for the nonprofit Side by Side Brain Injury Clubhouse in Stone Mountain, has had no tolerance for litter as far back as he can remember.

He grew up in High Point, N.C. in what was considered one of the cleanest public housing projects around. His family and teachers taught him to protect the environment.

“Grandma always preached cleanliness, so I can’t stand litter,” said Medley, who worked solo for about 15 years, trying to de-litter parts of the community. “I probably have hundreds, maybe thousands of volunteer hours in DeKalb County cleaning up trash.”

What started the ball rolling on the current effort?

Medley read on the social media site Next Door about an area resident who had the idea for a pandemic special: an outdoor lounge. He wrote the budding entrepreneur that he wouldn’t patronize the lounge because its location was too filthy and unsightly.

He offered – and did – help clean up the lounge site.

“The club folded, but we stayed, and we’re going strong,” Medley, 52, said.

Peggy Rothschild and her husband, Vern Edwards, were among those drawn in by Medley’s Next Door pitch for Sunday morning volunteers to “show our community that we care by putting words into action.”

“We have been showing up on Sunday mornings ever since,” Rothschild said. “I love the spirit of the group. Not only do we pick up trash, but we connect with each other and discuss various concerns in our community.”

Volunteer Kimberly Robinson said crew members have become like extended family.

“We have made a bond that goes beyond cleaning,” said Robinson, who signed on last fall with fiancé Jason Woods.

Woods, who has lived in DeKalb County for 25-plus years, has many happy memories of taking his daughter to Hairston Park. He and Robinson now take their young son, TJ. But in recent years, they have begun carrying a bag, gloves, and pick-up sticks to gather litter along their way.

Some areas were “so disgusting that we made it at least a weekly thing,” said Robinson, whose personal philosophy aligns well with the clean-up crew’s mission.

Karen Edwards uses a grabber to pick up a bottle as she works a group of his neighbors picking up trash at Hairston Park in Stone Mountain. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Caption
Karen Edwards uses a grabber to pick up a bottle as she works a group of his neighbors picking up trash at Hairston Park in Stone Mountain. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

“I believe in having pride in where I live and taking action when I see something wrong,” she said.

DeKalb County Commissioner Steve Bradshaw said he believes the group is making a difference.

“When you clean up, it seems like you are only putting a small dent in the problem or the challenge,” Bradshaw said. “But a small dent is better than no dent. And just pulling people together for this common purpose is extraordinarily important.”

On some Sunday mornings, the group will gather enough litter to fill six to 10 large bags and will haul off an assortment of junk furniture and old tires, Medley said.

“People need to be educated,” he said. “But I believe in modeling more than talking.”

And Deas, who was doing litter pick-up in his own neighborhood and with Medley before the group formed, said each day presents an opportunity for a big payoff for the community.

“Once you clean up a street or an area, it’s beautiful,” Deas said. “I know it sounds crazy. But without the trash, it’s beautiful.”

MORE DETAILS

Patrick Medley, organizer of the Central DeKalb Volunteer Clean Up Crew, gives special thanks to Keep DeKalb Beautiful, DeKalb County Commissioners Steve Bradshaw and Lorraine Cochran-Johnson, and DeKalb County Parks and Recreation.

Interested in joining? Call Medley at 404-299-2727.