Editor’s Note: This story is the part of our Pioneer series, Heroes Among Us. Do you know someone who should be featured? Let us know at email@example.com. Include their name and contact info.
Hero is a word often bantered about these days, almost to the point where its true significance has been diminished. But what else would you call individuals who are willing to crawl out of warm beds in the early morning hours on the first Saturday of each month to pick up trash?
Alex Diaz, a resident of North Concord near Hillcrest Park, has been doing it since 2016 – when he got “hooked” after participating in a cleanup put on by his Neighborhood Watch group.
Since then, he has mobilized a dedicated crew of volunteers to join him in tidying up their little corner of planet Earth, specifically targeting the streets and underpass areas around Highway 242 near Solano Plaza.
“Almost every time our group is out picking litter, someone gives a honk, thumbs up or a ‘Thank you’ in appreciation of our efforts. Those small gestures of support go a long way to keeping our group motivated,” said Diaz, who has seen their numbers slowly climb over the years.
Diaz praises Stephen McCaffree, Dea Smith, Carlyn Obringer, Daniel Zarazua and Jason Pfister, to name a few, who are rising early for the cause. “Unfortunately, the amount of trash seems to be outpacing our group’s growth,” he added.
A never-ending effort
The variety of trash he sees never ceases to amaze him, noting they have picked up every wrapper imaginable. “I had no idea that Swisher Sweets came in so many different flavors,” Diaz mused.
The group takes photos of larger items, such as abandoned furniture left “for free” on sidewalks, and submits them to the Concord Public Works Department for pick up later.
Reflecting on the experience, Diaz pointed to the “before and after” as being extremely satisfying. “To arrive at an area that is totally trashed and leaving it looking nice and clean feels great,” he said.
But for all the inroads he and his merry band have achieved, to watch it revert to its prior state is a gut punch.
“Seeing an area get trashed within days of cleaning it up is really disheartening. Plain and simple: I really wish people would stop trashing our community,” said Diaz. “I wish people really understood that the Swisher Sweet wrapper they toss on the ground ends up getting washed into storm drains and ultimately ends up polluting our Bay.”
Recruiting more volunteers
Still, the 40-year-old Diaz presses on to get the word out to bring others on board. He tapped the talents of friend Steve Pate, who came up with the idea of starting the Clean Streets-Concord Facebook group.
“In my defense, trying to get people to pick up trash on a Saturday morning isn’t exactly most people’s idea of a good time,” Diaz joked.
However, the outing on the first Saturday of March was particularly uplifting for Diaz. His regular small group of hearty souls got a dramatic boost as nine members of the staff of Fiacre, a Concord company, showed up to lend a hand.
Sixteen volunteers, including two small children of the Fiacre staff armed with trash pickers and bags, scoured the neighborhood around Solano Plaza. Diaz, who works in the financial services sector, hopes this firm’s random act of kindness becomes contagious in the area’s corporate community.
Paying it forward
As part of the cleanup effort in recent years, Diaz also started training a vine to scale a wall in the area of Grant Street and Overhill Road to help deter graffiti vandalism. Diaz didn’t know how many coats of paint now cover the wall, but his green thumb appears to be working.
Others like Diaz are taking steps to beautify and care for their little corners of the world, such as Gabbi Cerezo, who hosts a monthly cleanup at Meadow Homes Park.
Time will tell if Diaz’s efforts inspire more residents around Concord, Clayton and Pleasant Hill to roll up their sleeves to fight the blight in their neighborhoods. But one can only hope.
And hope is a good thing.