Litter Getter: Athens woman on a mission to clear community of trash

By Catherine Godbey | Staff Writer

Sitting on the front porch, frustrated by the shutdown triggered by the pandemic, Laverne Gilbert began to talk to God.

“I retired in 2019 and had these big plans of going on a cruise and traveling. But I was doing nothing because of COVID. I began meditating and asking the Lord what I should do,” the 63-year-old Athens woman said.

The answer came in the form of a mowing crew.

After watching the workers bypass a ditch near her home, Gilbert called the city. The next day, a worker mowed the area, but left one section untouched.

“I said, ‘Sir, are you going to get that?’ He said, ‘Ma’am, I would, but I’m going to make a mess because of the litter.’ I told him, ‘You make the mess and I’ll clean it up,’” said Gilbert.

That day in July 2020, Gilbert filled one trash bag with litter and found her purpose.

“I went to Mayor Ronnie Marks’ office the next day and told him I needed some litter grabbers, bags and a vest because I had a job to do,” Gilbert said.

With her bright green vest and silver trash picker, Gilbert became a fixture along Athens’ streets.

“She has just been on fire since July,” said Leigh Patterson, executive director of Keep Athens Limestone Beautiful. “The last count I have is she has picked up 120 bags of litter and I think I stopped counting in December. She has been such an inspiration. She’s always out in the community making our community better and cleaner.”

When family, friends and church members began joining Gilbert, “Laverne’s Litter Army” was born.

To recognize Gilbert’s impact on the community, Athens held a Mrs. Laverne’s Clean My Block Party on May 8. More than 60 people volunteered in the event and collected over 70 bags of trash. Many of the volunteers wore shirts emblazoned with “Join Laverne in Picking Up Litter” on the front and “It’s our community. It’s our neighborhood. It’s our job” on the back.

Jerome Malone, pastor of Oasis Church, organized the cleanup event with Keep Athens Limestone Beautiful to honor Gilbert.

“All of us have got something God has given us that allows us to make a difference in our community. This is Ms. Laverne’s way,” Malone said. “She’s inspired everyone to make a difference in our community.”

Leading by example, Gilbert impacted everyone from children and teenagers to Marks and Councilman Frank Travis.

“Ms. Laverne, thank you for your passion,” Marks said during the cleanup event. “Thank you for making a difference.”

While some people grow up participating in Adopt-A-Mile programs, litter cleanup is a new activity for Gilbert.

“The first time I cleaned up litter was that day last July,” Gilbert said. “I worked night shifts at the Tennessee Valley Authority, so I would go home and go to bed. I didn’t see all the litter. Now I see it and it is everywhere.”

Gilbert’s mission to beautify Athens continues on a daily basis. Litter grabbers and trash bags remain in her car at all times so she can stop to pick up glass bottles, cans, plastic bags, scraps of paper, fast-food bags, diapers, masks and straws.

“I get frustrated, especially when I pick up a spot and come back the same day and there is more trash. But people are beginning to see the problem and are helping out. This thing is bigger than me. We need the whole community to help out,” Gilbert said. “It’s looking better, but it’s not where it needs to be yet.”

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