By Phylecia Wilson
When Connie Wiggins walked out of her Gwinnett Clean and Beautiful (GC&B) office for the last time on March 29, she undoubtedly left with the assurance and satisfaction that in the 31 years of serving as executive director of the Keep America Beautiful affiliate she made a tremendous difference in the quality of life in her beloved Gwinnett County.
From building a recycling bank her first year as director to infusing environmental learning in Gwinnett County Schools and now in secondary education, Wiggins has led the effort to educate the Gwinnett community about programs that have given the county the reputation of being one of the most environmentally responsible counties in the nation.
“I agreed and our first task was to get a recycling bank built. I knew nothing about building, “ she laughed, “but I knew people in Gwinnett.” Some of those were architect Buck Lindsey, Russ Weaver, who was the district manager for Georgia Power and provided utility poles and other materials. And Jim Steele (former chief operations office of Gwinnett County Schools) helped get the facility built.
Wiggins became director on October 1, 1985 and on November 21 GC&B broke ground on the Satellite Boulevard facility. One year later on November 21, 1986 The Gwinnett Recycling Bank (GRB) was open.
The facility kept expanding as needs in the community grew, including allowing waste trucks to bring recycling they picked up from customers to the center and getting approval to use inmates to sort the materials. Wiggins calls it one of the most exciting and perhaps frightening times in the history of the organization’s recycling efforts.
Meanwhile, an interest developed in cleaning up one of Gwinnett’s most beautiful areas, Tribble Mill. Owned by the county, much of its 750 acres was used as a place for dumping of construction debris and illegal dumping of garbage and the county was thinking about selling it to developers.
After being alerted by the late J. W. Benefield and Sonny McDowell, in stepped Wiggins and GC&B with a plan to involve community volunteers in a major cleanup of the area. Four years and four thousand volunteers later, not only was the beautiful acreage in pristine condition but it resulted in the county developing one of Gwinnett’s most impressive parks.
Wiggins vividly remembers Commission Chairman Lillian Webb leading Scout troops in building bird houses and bat boxes in the soon to be park and BOE member Louise Radloff pitching debris into a huge dump truck. Then there was former Chairman Wayne Hill serving hot dogs to the multitudes at Public Lands Day, when the massive cleanup was celebrated with the unveiling of the master plan for Tribble Mill Park and fireworks.
For their extraordinary efforts, GC&B and Gwinnett County received the Take Pride in America Hall of Fame Award from President George H. W. Bush, one of only eight communities to do so.
“GC&B had gotten some state recognition and one national award but that was the first really big one, “ Wiggins said. “We kept doing our best, kept getting better and through the years took home 120 state and national KAB, Keep Georgia Beautiful and Take Pride in America awards.” That included KAB’s overall award for programs, the President’s Circle Award every year for 25 years.
“We got it so many times we had to sit out for 10 years,” Wiggins marveled.
Through the years, along with her board members and community volunteers, Wiggins tackled litter, graffiti and solid waste problems, implemented Adopt-A Road and Adopt-A-Highway, Christmas tree recycling, created the first Adopt-A-Stream program in Georgia, began Georgia’s first Governor’s Environmental Address, created the Youth Advisory Council and much more.
“Connie is one of the most intuitive people I know,” said Steele who served as GC&B board chair for most of the years that Wiggins served as director. “She has the sense and the pulse of the people. She is smart and has a way of getting people to do things that need to be done because they want to.
“She taught me that things don’t get it done by just a few. Get a lot involved – let all have a part in it and make them feel good about it.”
Her GC&B board was like a “Who’s Who in Gwinnett County” with elected officials, corporate, education, media and community leaders, as well as up and coming future leaders.
“I think Connie is a great people person and has a great talent in looking for and identifying people with potential,” said Rick O’Brien who served on the G&B board for more than 30 years, many of those years as treasurer. “(She has) the ability to study up-and-coming leaders that she could put on her board…engage them, have them participate, keep them focused and have fun doing it.”
The GC&B board did a lot of great work under Wiggin’s leadership but they also did have fun. Some of the fun included some of what she calls “crazy skits” at GC&B annual dinners.
“Some people were not impressed, but the skits had a purpose in that they caused people to remember that most importantly, Gwinnett leaders are real people like everybody else and unlike many communities that can’t get these people in the same room, we had school board, city, county and business leaders together having fun and sharing common good,” she explained.
But among her proudest accomplishments is the impact that GC&B has and continues to have.
“It is about our effort to develop tomorrow’s environmental stewards through programs in schools,” she explained. “It’s the only program we know of in the country that has a comprehensive environmental education program for K – 12 and now includes secondary schools like Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC) and Gwinnett Tech.”
She continued that GC&B gave the first scholarship at GGC to provide support to students pursuing careers in environmental sciences.
“The network that we’ve built and continue to build is key to how we get things done - through partnerships with schools, businesses, corporations, churches – the list goes on and on.
“And one of the exciting things is that as the community has continued to grow and develop, we have continued to reach out to different segments of the community to keep everybody involved,” she continued. “And Gwinnett has an expectation that when the county invests in people, people will give back. “
As Wiggins turns the page on this long chapter of her life she says what she will miss the most are the board members and volunteers. “And I hope they continue our work.”
That work will no longer include management of the GRB. With curbside pickup and other options residents have, after 30 years of serving the Gwinnett community, the recycling plant is closing at the end of April.
“The GC&B board studied how we can have the greatest impact and has decided that educating and getting people involved is a better use of GC&B time and energy,” she said.
Staff member Sumner Gann, who started with GC&B three years ago as an intern and got her master’s degree in environmental planning, will serve as the interim director until a new director is hired.
Retirement for Wiggins may not be what it is for some, however, and the next chapter in her book will not include sitting around and doing nothing and could be just as impressive as the one she’s leaving behind.
“I’m sure I’m not done doing things, yet,” she laughed. ”I may do some consulting and I want to volunteer at GGC and maybe do some other things in the community like helping with some other community initiatives.
“I want to go to the beach with my husband, Tom, have more time for my grandchildren (Matthew, 19, Lauren 14, and Lily, 10) and I want to do things when I want to do them.”
There will be lots of well-deserved accolades for this extraordinary lady at GB&B’s annual dinner and retirement celebration on Earth Day April 22 and not only for what she accomplished with GC&B.
Indeed, Wiggins contributions to Gwinnett County have gone beyond GC&B, as expressed so well by Commission Chair Charlotte Nash.
“Connie has created an amazing legacy through GC&B and many other organizations and causes she has championed that have made Gwinnett a better place than it would otherwise be today,” Nash said.
“She played a major role in leading community campaigns for passage of so many SPLOST programs and I cannot even begin to imagine what Gwinnett would be like without the multitude of important projects and improvements that have been funded by SPLOST since the first referendum was approved by voters in 1985. Some of those were easier to pass than others; all would have been more difficult without her involvement.”
Sheriff Butch Conway may have best captured Wiggins’ retirement when he wrote to her, “I wish you the best retirement for the next few weeks, then I'm sure you'll be back at making Gwinnett great.”