HUGER — On his regular drive to Halidon Hill Plantation from Charleston, Dick Coen recently noticed a change in the landscape.

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“I’ve been traveling that road almost 50 years and it’s always been so unsightly until maybe 6 months ago,” Coen said.

Then one day he learned why.

He spotted Sybil Mitchell and family members on the side of the road, sporting orange vests and carrying trash pickers and plastic bags.

“The highway really did need some attention,” he said. “Now they have made it so beautiful, like it originally was.”

For her part, Mitchell had also noticed the littered road when she returned to the Lowcountry three years ago. She grew up in the area but left after graduating from Cainhoy High School, coming back after her retirement in 2010.

“I wanted to live in a clean environment, so the first thing I thought was, ‘OK, I know about the Adopt-A-Highway program, let me see about that,” she said.

Soon she organized a group to clean up a couple miles of Cainhoy Road called “In Skipper’s Honor,” a nod to her late father, Richard Mitchell, who died in May 2006.

“He was well-known in the community,” Mitchell said. “He was a volunteer fireman and the superintendent of the Sunday school at Charity Church for more than 30 years. He taught us you don’t just live in a community, you are part of it. That is what was instilled in us and so that’s why we do what we do, in his memory. It’s about having a sense of ownership and pride in the community.”

Several awards

Mitchell is now the point person for three clean-up groups that total 10 to 12 friends and family members, including many of her nine surviving siblings and her mother, Leola Mitchell.

In addition to “In Skipper’s Honor,” two years ago she added a group called “A Smard Idea,” in memory of her great-great grandfather, and last year, “We ROC (Respect Our Community).” That brought their total to an eight-mile stretch of Cainhoy Road from Clements Ferry Road to Red Hill Road.

“What’s unique about our group is we have family members who do not live in the state of South Carolina and they drive from out of state to pick up trash on the roadway,” she said. “We have other family members who do not live in Berkeley County and they come into town just to pick up the trash.”

The group has won local, district and statewide awards for its dedication.

“They do an amazing job picking up and always reporting to me immediately,” said Berkeley County Recycling and Adopt-A-Highway Coordinator Kimberly Chernomas. “They are just an amazing group of people and the work they have done on Cainhoy Road is phenomenal.”

Christmas too

The Adopt-A-Highway program, which was started in South Carolina in 1988 and is now run by PalmettoPride, encourages individuals, groups, clubs and organizations to clean up at least two miles of highway on four designated Saturdays each year. The group leader fills out reports to help program officials keep track of the program’s impact.

The Adopt-A-Highway Program has approximately 2,500 groups and more than 22,000 volunteers in South Carolina.

Mitchell’s crews hit the road least once a week. When they do those extra pickups, they also haul the trash away to a dumpster or take it to a recycling center.

“Because we do it as frequently as we do, that’s why the road looks as good as it does,” she said. They consider themselves in the “maintenance” phase now. She said she can cover the entire eight miles in just over two hours, though they most often do two or three miles per outing.

Last year, Mitchell and her relatives walked the roadside 132 days, including Christmas, and picked up about three tons of trash, according to records.

Cars, big trucks

They’ve become known in the community.

“They may not know our names, but most people know our faces and they know our cars because they see us out there,” Mitchell said. “We get wonderful compliments from people. When they drive through this area, they think it’s absolutely gorgeous, and so do we.”

People have offered money to help offset costs, and vegetables from their gardens, she said. “On Christmas Day, a resident drove by and she went and bought us some sparkling cider, which was really quite sweet,” she said.

They go out early in the morning, mostly for safety reasons. The rural, tree-lined, two-lane road, where the speed limit ranges from 25 to 55 miles per hour, draws 18-wheelers going to and from nearby Nucor Steel and BP Chemical Co., and many cars traveling at high rates of speed.

“We are sensitive to the cars and trucks and try to work around them,” she said. “There are times police officers have stopped traffic so that we can cross the road.”

‘Community ministry’

The benefits transcend the aesthetic, she said.

“The community looks better, it feels safer, etc., but there’s a health component to it as well,” she said. “It’s a fabulous way of getting toned. And there’s a spiritual component to it as well. You feel better when you are in a clean environment. It has an impact on how you see things.”

And how people see things is important to her.

“We look at it as a partnership and simply call it a ‘community ministry,’” she said. “That’s why we do it. We do it out of respect for the community and the people who live here.”

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.