Monday, August 20 , 2018, 6:08 pm | Fair 75º


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Serve Santa Maria Volunteers Fan Out, Pitch In for 10th Community Cleanup Day

Scene of a brutal murder is among sites receving TLC from hundreds of volunteers tackling projects at homes, parks and schools

Serve Santa Maria volunteers quickly carry away freshly cut juniper branches during Saturday’s work day at a residence in the 900 block of North Dejoy Street in Santa Maria. Click to view larger
Serve Santa Maria volunteers quickly carry away freshly cut juniper branches during Saturday’s work day at a residence in the 900 block of North Dejoy Street in Santa Maria. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

[Click here for a related Noozhawk photo gallery.]

A broken saw and two overgrown juniper trees were no match for determined Serve Santa Maria volunteers Saturday. After a quick phone call, help arrived and the trees were cut down to size.

Similar chores — and collaborations — were completed across the Santa Maria Valley at nine private residences, four parks and three schools Saturday by approximately 350 volunteers participating in Serve Santa Maria 10.

Additionally, a team visited sites to pray for participants’ safety and success.

Volunteers who descended on a house in the 900 block of North Dejoy Street, a few blocks south of Oakley School, were briefly thwarted by equipment failure as they tried to remove stubborn juniper trees.

But Santa Maria police Sgt. Eligio Lara called a buddy, retired Santa Maria firefighter Dennis Szczepanski, who came right over with a chainsaw.

Within minutes of his arrival, the juniper branches rested on the ground, where volunteers picked them up to toss into a nearby roll-off debris bin.

“That guy’s a lifesaver, believe me,” volunteer Alfonso “​Jasso” Diaz, a retired Montecito Water District employee, told Noozhawk during a short pause from the buzzing saw.

Serve Santa Maria, a community cleanup launched five years ago by Pastor Carl Nielsen of Bethel Lutheran Church, involves work teams spreading out across the Santa Maria Valley to complete various projects twice a year.

Other organizations and businesses supported the projects. Pepsi Bottling Co. donated 500 bottles of water, Hugh Bedford of Bedford Enterprises provided five roll-off debris bins, and The Salvation Army delivered lunches for the volunteers.

Additionally, Thrivent Financial and the Santa Barbara Foundation provided funding to support the day’s projects. The Santa Barbara Foundation has selected Serve Santa Maria as the recipient of a $5,000 challenge grant, with any donations to be matched up to $5,000 through Dec. 31.

On Saturday afternoon, Nielsen emailed a report of the “amazing” day as he noted efforts to turn Serve Santa Maria into a nonprofit organization.

“We are paid, not with dollars, but with a glad heart and a good feeling of helping another person or the community,” he said. “And we know God is honored through our service.”

At municipal sites throughout the city, volunteers spread bark. At schools, they painted and removed weeds. And at individual homes, they cleaned yards.

A future project, planned for another day due to its complexity, will see the installation of a wheelchair-accessible ramp at a residence occupied by dialysis patients.

Those who worked at the North Dejoy Street address were particularly driven. The house was the home of Marilyn Pharis, who was viciously attacked as she slept July 24. She died of her injuries eight days later.

Two men, one of whom is an undocumented immigrant with prior arrests, face first-degree murder charges as well as other charges in the case.

Diaz’s wife, Nancy, a friend of Pharis’ and a previous Serve Santa Maria volunteer, served as the project leader at the house.

“We’re trying to soften up and give this house a little curb appeal,” Diaz said, adding that the work focused on front and back yards, including removing the juniper trees so the home can be treated for termites.

Nielsen said most of the volunteers at the site were Pharis’ friends and coworkers.

“It was very healing for many of her coworkers to do something,” he said.

Mayor Alice Patino was among those at the site, picking up brush and twigs and loading debris in a wheelbarrow.

“It brings all of Santa Maria together,” she said. “It’s beautiful. It’s so energizing for all of us.”

Observing workers quickly transform the yard, Nancy Diaz said she was overwhelmed.

“The family is just going to be amazed,” she said, adding that Pharis’ family had seen police photographs from the gruesome crime scene.

“Now it’s going to be a whole new picture.”

In Orcutt, First Christian Church volunteers loaded equipment after completing the day’s list of chores, and were making plans to return to tackle the backyard of the residence, according to project leader Lynn Spier.

The home’s octogenarian resident, who asked not be named, said the help meant a lot to her.

“They’ve just been wonderful,” she said. “I’ve always been a giver and I had to learn to receive today.

“It’s nice when people give like this and don’t expect anything in return.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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