Ascencion Hernandez had a big smile on his face Sunday. He came up with an idea to host a youth soccer tournament to bring his south Modesto neighbors to Fairview Park and show them how much it had improved.
It was a somewhat forgotten park on the southwest edge of the neighborhood. It was mostly dirt and potholes, covered with graffiti. Neighborhood residents just stayed away; it wasn’t a place for children.
About 1,200 people made their way to the park Sunday. They enjoyed picnics and watched the kids play on green converted soccer fields. The park has become what it was intended to be, a safe place for families to enjoy.
“It’s simply a marvelous thing for me,” Hernandez said in Spanish while looking at all the families gathered at the park.
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Hernandez is a member of Manos Unidas, or United Hands, a group of south Modesto residents working to improve their neighborhood. The group was formed after authorities began enforcing a gang injunction in this neighborhood west of Crows Landing Road and south of the Tuolumne River.
The gang injunction, the only one in Stanislaus County, was designed to limit the activities of a violent street gang that had entrenched itself in the neighborhood.
The members of Manos Unidas wanted to approach some of the same issues that plague their neighborhood from a different perspective. Their goal is to make neighborhood improvements that strengthen the bonds between residents and create pride in their community.
Sunday’s free soccer tournament was the first large event Manos Unidas has hosted at Fairview Park since the group launched its revitalization effort about two years ago.
“With it being our first time, we’re really pleased,” said Manuel Rivera, one of the lead coordinators of the group, which is made up solely of south Modesto residents.
The soccer tournament had 16 teams and about 240 players ages 6 to 10. The park, near Tucson and West Whitmore avenues, is large enough that multiple soccer games were played at the same time.
Pilar Navarro and several other volunteers spent most of the day preparing food at the neighborhood group’s concession stand. All profits will be used to install playground equipment.
Navarro said the children needed a safe park nearby, but some of her neighbors didn’t know Fairview Park existed.
“It was so run-down,” she said in Spanish while cooking another batch of hot dogs Sunday. “But now we’re inviting everyone out here to see how it has improved.”
The group is trying to raise $20,000 to install the playground equipment. Joseph Sanchez said they raised about $1,000 Sunday. It was the group’s first fundraising effort.
Sanchez has lived in south Modesto for about 20 years, and he remembers Fairview Park as an abandoned place of which families were fearful.
“Little by little, more people are coming out here,” Sanchez said. “It’s looking a lot better.”
Some of the trouble the park has experienced lingers. Vandals have spray-painted graffiti on donated picnic tables and barbecue pits that were recently put in place. The soccer tournament’s organizers arrived Sunday morning to find graffiti on the park’s restrooms.
Sanchez said the organizers worked quickly to paint over the graffiti on the bathrooms. The group’s next project, a mural on the restrooms’ exterior walls, is meant to deter vandals.
Neighborhood resident and artist Fernando Navarro, Pilar’s husband, will design the mural. He said he has never designed a mural before, but he’s welcoming the challenge.
“The most important part of it will be working with the kids,” he said while coaching one of the soccer teams Sunday.
Manos Unidas will enlist the help of local students to paint the mural, a project they expect will take a few months to complete. The group also will seek input from residents on what should be depicted in the community-themed mural.
The volunteer group began with a goal of using the talent and skills within the neighborhood to improve the quality of life for residents. The group also wants to empower residents and get them working together to find solutions to common problems.
As for revitalizing the park, the group hopes one day to pave the road entering the park from Tucson Avenue. It also wants to host pickup basketball games and a series of free family movie nights. The first movie night is scheduled at 6 p.m. Aug. 29 with the popular animated feature “Frozen.”
Fernando’s brother Alfredo Navarro has lived with his wife and children in south Modesto for more than a decade. They have seen up close how gangs and drugs have ruined the lives of so many other families in their neighborhood.
Alfredo coaches youth soccer teams and helped organize Sunday’s tournament. He says sports are positive activities that can pull at-risk youths off the streets, and Fairview Park can be their safe haven.
“Instead of going into gangs, they can belong to a soccer team,” he said. “This is like a dream come true. We have a place now where we can say, ‘This is our park.’ ”