Volunteer shows her love for Merced

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comOctober 1, 2012 

— This Saturday, hundreds of Merced residents came together to help clean up the city for the second Love Merced event, which featured more than two dozen community activities to help improve neighborhoods.

Many people in Merced devoted time and energy, but the event was made possible, in large part, because of the dedication of a few volunteer organizers.

At the head of that team was Aubrey Nelson, who worked for months coordinating with city officials and getting the word out to residents.

"She worked like crazy," said Al Schaap, pastor at Gateway Church in Merced. "People like Aubrey, they're the unsung heroes. They're the people that make the community work."

The Love Our Cities event started in 2007 at a church in Modesto and quickly spread to other communities.

In April, Gateway and other Merced churches adopted the idea, combining community revitalization efforts into the Love Merced event.

From the beginning, Nelson, who belongs to Gateway Church, wanted to be part of the project.

"I love making those connections," Nelson said. "I don't know if it's a God-given talent or I just like chaos, but I just like when people feel that connection. I feel like I'm called to do it."

The first Love Merced event Nelson organized was a success, drawing more than 600 people to help beautify and clean up areas around the city.

"Fortunately, Aubrey organizes it so well that it runs smoothly," said Eric Hamm, a volunteer organizer, Merced resident and father of three. "People just need to show up and do it, so it's really an easy way to get involved."

Nelson has a 7-year-old son, and she and Hamm say they are largely motivated by being parents.

"I do it because, as a mom, I feel like I want to raise my son to really appreciate things and help people for all the right reasons," Nelson said. "I know I'm instilling in him a great sense of community. If they go out and clean up graffiti, they're less likely to do it."

Nelson has done such an impressive job with the Love Merced event, Schaap helped appoint her as the head of Delhi Thrift, a recently established nonprofit providing affordable goods to the community.

"She just loves people without judgment," Schaap said. "She has a huge heart to help the poor in a nonjudgmental way."

With the help of people such as Nelson, Love Our Cities has spread to more than 40 cities in the region, including Atwater, Delhi, Gustine, Hilmar, Livingston, Los Banos and Winton.

This weekend's event featured 22 projects around the city, including construction at Applegate Zoo, installing a community garden at the D Street homeless shelter, bike path maintenance and a cleanup of Main Street between V and M streets. The community effort was followed by a barbecue at Applegate Amphitheater.

"As a community, I think it's vital that we stop being so negative and start thinking of creative ways to help each other," Nelson said.

For more information or to get involved in upcoming Love Our Cities events, visit http://lovemerced.com.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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