Youth groups sprucing up Washington neighborhood

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Rather than youth groups at three Washington area churches going to a faraway land for a mission trip this summer, church leaders decided to send their groups just a few blocks down the road to help troubled neighborhoods in their own city.


“It’s really important to take care of our community and meeting people just two blocks away,” said Aaron Miller, the director of student ministries at Life Church in Washington. “We don’t want our missions to be distant. We want it to be about the community.”


More than 40 teens and their church leaders from Church of the Covenant, Life Church and Washington Alliance Church descended onto Locust Avenue Monday morning to begin a three-day cleanup of a neglected block in the Highland-Ridge neighborhood.


The work is the first phase of the Highland Ridge Community Development Corp.’s “Mending Fences” beautification program that is focusing on houses and vacant lots along Locust Avenue as it targets distressed areas across the city.


“This is the target street we wanted because there are a couple of homes that are condemned,” said Fred Fleet, president of the Highland-Ridge organization. “This, at one time, was one of the best-looking streets in Washington. Just over the years …”


The teens began the day by chopping back vegetation and trees that had grown over the front yard of a vacant house, chipped away rotted siding from one longtime resident’s home, painted the foundation of another and planted flowers in small gardens. The group also planned to mow and weed some vacant lots.


Charles Staley, 82, is one of the homeowners the “Mending Fences” program is trying to help. The Army veteran has lived on Locust Avenue since 1952. He worked in the glass industry for 35 years, but he’s now having trouble with the upkeep of his yard and house.


“It’s beyond words,” Staley said. “I’ve never had anything like this in all the years I’ve been here. I appreciate anything they do in any way.”


Staley became emotional while addressing the teens and their church leaders before they fanned out across his property and nearby homes.


“I just want to thank you all,” Staley said.


Hannah Palmer of Clarksburg, W.Va., was one of several youth group members working tirelessly on a muggy morning to help Staley as they scraped old siding off his house. Others were seen weeding along a fence before preparing to paint it.


“I’m really happy everyone came together to help these people in their neighborhood,” Hannah said. “It shows anyone can do it.”


Just a couple of houses away, several boys were carrying brush and branches from an overgrown front yard while professional landscapers were mulching tree limbs. Washington resident Sean Clark said he volunteers each Saturday to help clean Life Church and hopes that work and this week’s cleanup will inspire others to help.


“I want to influence people around the city and maybe change Washington a little bit,” Clark said while carrying a log from the lot. “Hopefully this work will change people and they’ll want to contribute.”


That was the spirit Fleet said his organization was trying to harness as it plans to moves its resources from the Highland-Ridge neighborhood to other parts of the city. The “Mending Fences” program he announced in February is designed to help homeowners who need it the most, such as people who are low-income, elderly, disabled, veterans or longtime residents.


“It’s all about the service,” Fleet said while applauding the local churches for offering help. “Without these guys, we wouldn’t have the kids.”


The initial phase of work will continue today and Wednesday, with more extensive improvements to continue this summer. Locust Avenue was selected for the first wave because it’s currently closed to traffic while construction work is being performed on nearby Highland Avenue.


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