Keep Forest Park Beautiful Director Edie Yongue practices what she preaches by not littering. (Staff Photo: Kathy Jefcoats)
FOREST PARK — Edie Yongue grew up in a rural South Carolina family that relished the outdoors, so keeping her natural surroundings litter-free and inviting is part of her DNA.
“My family were farmers, hunters, fishermen,” she said. “Beautification has always been an outlet for me. Now it’s become a passion.”
Two years after marrying Henry Yongue, the couple moved to metro Atlanta when he took a job with Delta Airlines. One of the most memorable anti-litter campaigns on television at the time featured a Native Indian crossing a litter-riddled river in a canoe. He exited the canoe at the shore and walked to the edge of a highway.
The camera zoomed in so viewers could see a tear trickling down his cheek just as a passer-by throws out a fast food bag of trash at his feet.
That public service advertisement was funded by Keep America Beautiful, a nonprofit organization that educated the public about preserving natural resources and not littering. Over time, the issues have extended to recycling, reducing waste in landfills and planting trees.
In 1984, Yongue just needed a job when she was hired by Keep Clayton County Beautiful, a KAB affiliate. That job to help pay bills had become a 26-year passionate career when the bottom dropped out.
“The board of commissioners decided to not fund the program anymore,” she said.
Yongue’s job was about to be dissolved. Her only child, Sarah Yongue, was grown but Yongue had developed a knack for improving the county’s environment and was widely-known for involving residents, schools, businesses and churches in clean community programs. She wasn’t ready to retire.
Forest Park officials decided that the county’s loss would be the city’s gain.
“I got a call from John Parker who wanted to talk to me about starting a Keep Forest Park Beautiful program,” she said, referring to the former city manager.
In July 2010, the idea reached fruition and Keep Forest Park Beautiful became the county’s only KAB affiliate. Most of the program’s initiatives target Forest Park residents but others, including the annual Christmas tree recycling, are extended to the whole county.
“I tell people that Forest Park is my front yard,” she said. “Riverdale is my back yard. Jonesboro, Ellenwood, Lovejoy, Morrow, Lake City and College Park are my side yards. I want people to be proud of their communities and be concerned about their environment.”
Tragedy struck in November 2010 when Sarah Yongue died suddenly from a blood clot in her lung. She was 35, had never married or had children. Edie took her only child to the hospital when she developed symptoms.
“I knew something was wrong when she couldn’t breathe,” she said. “I was sitting there, watching the machines, I could see what was happening. They never did figure out how she got it.”
A lifelong Christian, Yongue turned even more to her faith after losing her only child. She and Henry are members of Grace Summit Church in Stockbridge. She points heavenward when asked how she copes with the loss.
“That’s all I can say,” she said.
Yongue has also developed a close relationship with the Forest Park Ministers Association as a way to network through the community.
“I have a weird notion that if people get together, the overall whole gets better,” she said. “I’ve been so thankful to the Forest Park Ministers Association for their involvement with Keep Forest Park Beautiful.”
Yongue said association members participate in the city’s quarterly clean-up days.
“Together, we reach a lot of people,” she said. “We provide the trash bags and litter grabbers and that partnership has forged a relationship. That is a group of people that looks outside the box for solutions.”
On those clean-up days, participants rake yards of residents who are older or otherwise unable to perform that chore. Yongue added document shredding and electronics disposal to those clean-up days. She’d also like to see the yard-raking extended to include minor house repairs and grass cutting.
“If they can’t rake, they certainly can’t cut grass,” Yongue said. “We need to get more young people to help these senior citizens. I believe you build unity in the community when everybody gets involved. If you want to do something badly enough, you will find a way to do it.”
Keep Forest Park Beautiful also recognizes Yards of the Month for businesses and residences, but Yongue would like to see more businesses involved in a cleaner community.
“I know how the economy is and people don’t have a lot of money to throw around but there are things owners can do to make their businesses more user-friendly without spending a lot of money,” she said.
For example, if a business can’t afford a new paint job, soap and water can go a long way to brightening a storefront. Trash can be kept picked up and not allowed to accumulate, loitering should be discouraged and there should be enough lighting so customers feel safe at night.
“When it’s like that, crime rates drop,” said Yongue. “That goes for neighborhoods, too.”
Yongue said she is excited about the city’s new public works director, Jeff Eady. She is meeting with him Monday to discuss upcoming projects as Keep Forest Park Beautiful enjoys a successful partnership with public works employees.
“I love my job and the people I work for and with,” she said. “There’s a lot of good people in Forest Park and this county. There’s a lot of people doing good in this county who don’t always get the accolades.”