It’s a dirty job, but Gary Smith, a one-man cleaning machine, loves coordinating the many volunteers who help him pick up litter along city streets. JOHN BIONDO PHOTO
BY DEBRA MAGRANN
Gary Smith, a retired Pittsburgh bankruptcy attorney, takes pride in a clean environment. He has single-handedly amassed an army of volunteers who patrol a quadrant of the city in the Parks Edge neighborhood where the main roadways were strewn with trash.
His one-man attack on litter spans the past six years, during which Smith initiated a partnership with the city, supporting its Keep Port St. Lucie Beautiful mission.
“This is much bigger than keeping the city beautiful,” he says. “It’s about getting people’s attention and preventing them from littering.” To that end, Smith searches for ways to curb the culture of litter.
It all began post retirement; a city employee challenged him to do something about an area that received a high volume of litter hotline complaints. In 2010, he found his calling: cleanup duty once a week for six months, riding in a golf cart for eight hours as an unpaid city worker. As part of the Adopt-A-Street program, Smith attended an orientation, was handed an ID badge and got down to business.
His dedication led him to attend a statewide conference with Carmen Capezzuto — then the city’s project manager in charge of solid waste. “He gets it and he doesn’t give up,” says Capezzuto, who appreciates Smith’s resolve. Smith also has a partnership with Sherman Conrad, Parks and Recreation director. “He’s a great guy — he gets the job done!”
Then in 2011, Smith laid the groundwork that some thought could never be done. He contacted the manager of a McDonald’s and the PNC Bank and solicited the assistance of employees to maintain their outer perimeters and parking lots. These relationships are still fruitful today.
“I call it the Evolution of Darwin,” he says, playfully referring to Darwin Boulevard’s residential area. “There are some eyesores where food containers and wrappers wind up, but overall, we are making a difference.”
It is the perfect incubator for litter control, matching eager volunteers within the variety of schools, shops, offices and residences.
Smith gives volunteers what they need and donates supplies: safety vests and grabbers. He worked closely with the inventor of the “Litter Loop” — a simple device that costs little to make and aids in the containment of trash.
He is a card-carrying leader of PSL: People Serious (about) Litter, and uses the business cards he had printed as a recruiting tool. There is an informational website (www.peopleseriousaboutlitter.com) with a photo gallery and a page dedicated to the project that describes how residents, businesses and the city work together.
A longtime member of Rotary International, Smith epitomizes their motto, “Service above Self,” and lives it daily. An ordained minister and well-read theologian, he confronts road trash with enthusiasm and vigor. He desires people to connect and collect because in doing so, lives will be affected. The hope is to change attitudes about litter and convert behaviors for the greater good.
What sets Smith apart is his energy — it’s boundless. He maintains an action-oriented and practical philosophy when approaching business managers. His first breakthrough came while on daily litter pickup at a McDonald’s. He noticed two men who looked like managers. “I guessed one was a corporate fella and said, ‘I don’t know who you are, but I know someone important when I see him.’ ” When Smith laid out his plan the response was, “What is the litter policy?” Smith replied, “Pick it up.”
He cut a deal to clean the swale if they maintained their landscaping and parking lot. In the beginning, the buildup was terrible. PNC Bank agreed to help. Then the local Air Force JROTC assisted. “You gotta get to God,” Smith says, “or the people who have clout.”
One by one, he got the attention of managers, spilling over to commercial maintenance and lawn service workers. Residents would come along asking if they could help. Among his cohorts is Susie Madenbach. “I’m a member of the Giraffe Society,” she says, “ — the ones who stick their necks out.”
“I hope this brings a sense of community pride,” Smith adds. “People feel good when they see clean streets.”
Leading by example, he presented an action plan to the Port St. Lucie Rotary Club, hoping to instill his passion in others. The Rotary Community Corps emerged as an umbrella organization for high school students requiring volunteer hours. The right connection was made and the St. Lucie County School Board approved the plan.
“This solves the problem a high school student has: They need a place to volunteer and have transportation,” he says. “The city cannot authorize unchaperoned youth due to liability issues. Because Rotary is a third-party insurer, problem’s solved! Young people can pick up trash in their own neighborhoods. We hold them accountable and everyone is happy.”
He is always looking for ways to expand.
“It’s all about people, partnerships and prevention.”
Hometown: Port St. Lucie
Occupation: Retired attorney and ordained minister.
Family: Wife, Kay; daughter, Lauren Smith-Meinhardt; son-in-law, Mel Meinhardt; son, Park; and grandson Luke
Education: Bachelor of Arts, University of Pittsburgh; Master of Divinity, Methodist Theological School, Delaware, Ohio; Juris Doctor, Duquesne University School of Law.
Hobbies: Ping pong, reading American history, traveling, dining with friends and activities with the Rotarians and St. Lucie Chamber of Commerce.
Who/what inspires me: “Building community.”
Something most people don’t know about me: “I was an avid motorcyclist; my wife and I rode BMW motorcycles in 20 countries, mainly in Europe — Belgium and the UK. We were ambassadors of the BMW Club/Motorcycle Owners of America.”