Christian group cleans up airport neighborhood

Rodney Emmrich and other volunteers roasted under the hot sun Saturday as they pulled weeds along South Santa Cruz Avenue in Modesto's airport neighborhood.

Emmrich, 41, of Modesto was part of a contingent of church groups that painted over graffiti, removed junk from alleys and pulled weeds along the streets and walkways in the neighborhood.

"It is hard work, but it feels good, and it looks good, too," Emmrich said while shoveling leaves and weeds into large, black garbage bags.

The cleanup was organized by Advancing Vibrant Communities, a nondenominational Christian organization in Modesto begun in 2002 by pastor Michael Douglass.

He said the group wanted residents to know that the Modesto-area churches are available to help them improve their neighborhood.

"We're not trying to look like an invasion force," Douglass said. "We want to be servants to the neighborhood."

About 350 volunteers from 28 churches gave their time and sweat Saturday. A Stanislaus County Honor Farm crew of six inmates joined the effort in the 90-degree heat.

"It's been going faster and quicker than we expected," Douglass said. "The only downside is that it's hot."

Douglass, formerly on staff at Big Valley Grace Community Church, began AVC with businesses and other Modesto-area pastors to help needy people by using volunteers from churches.

He said AVC decided to organize cleanups in the airport neighborhood in the spring and west Modesto in the fall.

"We really feel that's where most of the needs are," Douglass said about the neighborhoods, plagued with poverty, gangs and blight.

He said residents and pastors from the airport neighborhood told AVC that weeds, graffiti and junk in the alleys were the biggest blight.

The volunteers met in the morning at Legion Park before they were sent out in groups of 10 or more.

Grateful residents help

Augustin Solorio, 40, and his family walked out of their home on South Santa Cruz Avenue and helped Emmrich and his group pull weeds.

"We wanted to show them that we're grateful and we're here ready to help," said Solorio with his wife and three children pulling weeds alongside him.

Solorio said the cleanup not only beautifies the neighborhood but makes his family feel safer as well. He said the bushes and the tall weeds often are used by suspects to hide from police, so he was happy to see them removed.

Alex Avalos, 54, of Ceres brought his weed-eater from home and removed weeds and trimmed overgrown oleander branches that were blocking the sidewalk, just west of the Modesto Airport.

Beth McCloud, 66, of Modesto spent the day painting over graffiti on backyard fences and walls along the railroad tracks. The paint didn't match the colors on the walls or the fences, but the purpose was to cover the vandalism that marks gang territories and can provoke violence.

"It looks patchworky, but it looks better without the gang graffiti," McCloud said. "I talked to a few residents and they kept saying, 'thank you, thank you.' "

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at or 578-2394.