Valton Johnson, the president of the Johnson Management Group, was recognized last month by the Environmental Protection Agency as a Children’s Environmental Health Hero for his work educating children about the effects of air emissions.
The EPA highlighted Johnson’s creation of a child-friendly character named Idle Eddy, a cloud of harmful emissions emanating from an idling car’s tailpipe, as a useful tool for teaching children about “the harmful pollutants from cars idling.”
The Johnson Management Group organizes presentations for school children and adults about the environmental and health impacts of air pollution. Johnson has spoken in 113 schools in Jefferson and Shelby counties about vehicle emissions, asthma, and how to reduce exposure.
“Our goal is to educate our youth on what emissions does to the body as it relates to asthma and respiratory challenges,” Johnson said, noting that the CDC has found that school children with asthma annually miss over 10 million days of school. “We talk about asthma because a lot of children and students in the K-8 schools are unaware of what air quality means until we hit the nail on the head and talk about asthma,” he said. “Then everybody raises their hand and says, ‘Somebody in my family has asthma.’”
Johnson normally gives 30-minute presentations to individual classrooms, but he said schools occasionally ask him to speak at general assemblies in front of larger group of students as well.
“In addition to educating our children on what emission does, we have a tool that we [use to] educate parents,” Johnson continued. “We’ll stand outside the school at about two o’clock and watch the parents pull up with their cars idling. We’ll count those cars and approach the drivers of those vehicles and let them know what our mission is, and that is to reduce emissions. And if they comply with our request to turn off their cars, we give them a hand fan, so they can keep cool. Because what happens is, the emissions comes out of those tailpipes and goes into the atmosphere and if the HVAC is on, and it usually is because it’s either cold or hot, it’s going to be going into the school system and infiltrating every classroom. So now every child is subjected to the emissions coming out of those vehicles.”
Before starting the Johnson Management Group, Johnson served as the director of career services at Virginia College. In 2009 he spoke at the United Negro College Fund gala and was afterwards approached by members of the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, who asked him to speak on their behalf to local neighborhood associations about air quality.
“My concern has always been children’s health,” Johnson said. “I’ve been a [Central Alabama] Youth Federation president, which means I had 14 churches I was overseeing. My concern here has always been dealing with young people, making sure they’re on the straight-and-narrow, moving on the path forward, because I want to see them succeed.”
Johnson gave presentations on the Regional Planning Commission’s behalf until 2012, when he started his Management Group and made teaching the community about air pollution his full time job. That same year, he created the character of Idle Eddy as a means to illustrate the group’s message. Johnson describes the moment of inspiration that gave him the idea of Idle Eddy as “a Biblical godsend” and explained that the red octagon around the car and smoke were meant to evoke a stop sign.
“Since 2012 we have been in the trenches, if you will, trying to make sure people understand what we’re trying to say and get the message about idling cars,” Johnson said.
In early October, when the EPA named Johnson an EPA Region 4 Children’s Environmental Health Hero, the agency described him as “a passionate leader in the field of environmental education” and noted that “[h]is cartoon character has captured the attention of decision makers.” On Oct. 16, Johnson’s picture and a write-up of his work were displayed in the lobbies of the EPA’s Washington, DC and Atlanta offices.
While there is still work to do regarding air quality in Birmingham, Johnson said the city has seen much improvement in recent years.
“We have gone from poor air quality to much better air quality. … Because we are getting the message out, we have seen the asthma numbers go down,” he said. “We are working very diligently in the city and in the state and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and all these folks are involved. Again, I have to give a lot of credit to the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, because they’re the ones who spearheaded getting me in to talk to the community about it, and from there it birthed talking and having conversations with all the schools.”