Volunteers lend a hand in honor of "Mrs. Modesto"

Hundreds of spirited volunteers fanned out across the valley on a beautiful Saturday morning, pulling nails and weeds, collecting used clothes and raising money to help the needy and to combat cancer.

Many shared warm memories of "Mrs. Modesto" on the first of what is meant to become the annual Bette Belle Smith Day of Service. Others simply were swept along by a wave of goodwill -- exactly as the tireless matriarch would have wanted, some said.

"It's wonderful that people are coming out en masse to show respect and admiration for a woman who spent her life doing work for the community," said Shannon Gilbert-Weaver, her gloves darkened with dirt. "We all have to do a little to make up for everything she did."

Smith was 88 when she died in November, leaving indelible imprints on more than 30 organizations in Modesto and Stanislaus County.

The Day of Service was the brainchild of Leadership Modesto, a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored program aimed at developing civic-minded do-gooders. Led by Kate Trompetter, the group recruited the United Way of

Stanislaus County and several other nonprofit agencies, and ideas snowballed.

Events included a fun run and walk, fund-raising relays in four neighboring cities, a health fair, meals for veterans, and drives to collect pajamas and children's books.

"One of the best ways we can honor Bette Belle is by imitating her," Trompetter said.

"Next year will be even bigger and better," predicted Barbara Borba, the United Way of Stanislaus' volunteer coordinator.

"Bette Belle inspired so many of us to get involved in the community, including me. I think it's so appropriate to have a day of service named after someone who gave a lifetime of service."

The back of Josh Boek's station wagon brimmed with yard tools: a shovel, broom, rakes and red gas cans stacked around a lawn mower. "I just brought whatever I thought might conceivably be used," he said with a shrug.

Sixteen volunteers gathered nearby in the street outside Advancing Vibrant Communities, chatting, sipping coffee and waiting to be deployed.

"I don't even do my own yard work," Teresa Morris said, laughing. "Maybe this will inspire me to get off my butt."

Bev Finley, whose friendship with Smith spanned three decades, said she was an eager disciple of Smith's renowned boosterism. "To honor her, I'm ready to go," Finley said. "To take care of people -- how could you not be here?"

Pastor Mike Douglass gave the troops a pep talk before sending them out. The idea, he said, is "getting people outside their four walls, touching other people. We find that the people who get the most blessings are the ones who give."

From his electric scooter, Joe Alfieri surveyed the army of volunteers hacking at weeds, some of them chest-high, in his yard. He's almost 57 and feels "like I'm 157," he said. Surgically inserted tubes in his back prevent him from bending or stooping.

"I'm not much of a gardener anymore," Alfieri said. "I'm so glad to get some help. It's starting to look like a yard again. I was starting to get embarrassed; I'd come outside, look at the big, tall, ugly weeds and then go back in. Uck!

"And it's nice to have some company."

"Dear Soldier," the note started, each letter in a different bright color, in the handwriting of a teenage girl.

It was one of dozens penned by volunteers wanting "to make a soldier's day," said 17-year-old Brittany Francis of Modesto. A letter was the last item placed in each of 250 care boxes on their way to those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, prepared by 50 volunteers at downtown Modesto's Red Cross headquarters.

Teen writers include their e-mails in case military people want to write back. Shelby Muniain, 16, of Oakdale said, "We thank them for everything they do for our country."

"And we put that we hope they have a wonderful life after," Francis added.

Bette Belle Smith's son, Tim, watched sweat-soaked crews tear asphalt shingles from a roof in Modesto's airport neighborhood. Habitat For Humanity is refurbishing the home for a low- income family, and 30 volunteers showed up to help.

Some of the grand matron's descendants climbed a ladder to help, but Tim Smith had no desire to get any closer than the sidewalk, or to leave his wheelchair. Surgeons recently rebuilt his foot with a metal plate and rods after he tumbled from his own roof while doing simple maintenance.

"No way I'll ever get on a roof again," he said.

"But this is impressive. To have a day like this, where hundreds of people are serving thousands of people and creating a legacy of service -- it's amazing."

Among those wielding hammers were the husband and son of Mary McGranahan, Tim Smith's twin sister. Family members had spent the morning visiting several events, encouraging volunteers, dropping off toiletries for care packages and donating used clothing. At this stop on Tenaya Drive, they put on gloves and joined in.

"Nobody loved Modesto more than my mom," McGranahan said. "For years and years, Mom never had a job that paid her a penny. To see so many volunteers out here is extraordinary. This is where her heart was -- volunteering."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.