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Love Modesto event spreads message of hope throughout city

Modesto was feeling the love and spreading the love far and wide Saturday morning.

The annual citywide community service event Love Modesto brought out some 5,000 people to clean, serve, help and encourage in close to 100 projects around the area. Started in 2009, the self-improvement drive has grown each year, attracting some 1,200 volunteers its inaugural year. Many taking part this year were first timers, including Modesto resident Christina Musquiz, who wanted to help improve the city and prove there’s a lot to love already.

“People are taking a good look at the city and realizing there are people out there who are loving and want to do more,” she said, while waiting with a group from her church Victory Outreach to start her project. “This is a very rich city, a good city. And we want to make it an even better place.”

The festivities kicked off with a rally in front of the Gallo Center for the Arts in downtown Modesto, but soon spread out throughout the town. Crews picked up trash, collected donations, planted flowers, painted over graffiti and much more. This year, observers from about 10 other cities across the country came to watch how Modesto has turned the annual event into a success.

One of the returning projects was the Pajama Program, which collects sleepwear and books for children in need. Central Valley Chapter President Zenia Zuniga said this is the program’s fourth Love Modesto and the event has become one of its largest collection drives annually. This year, she estimates the nonprofit has collected some 300 pajamas, which were then sorted and sent to agencies and organizations that serve youths in the area.

As a former foster kid who grew up homeless, Zuniga runs the local chapter out of her living room. The Ceres mother of four said taking part in Love Modesto helps to spread the word about the charity and find out what good works are being done by others.

“Every year it gets bigger and we’re always excited to be a part of it,” she said. “People are so excited and want to help.”

Love Modesto Executive Director Jeff Pishney encouraged those in attendance to spread the Love Modesto message beyond just one day, and make it a year-round effort to elevate and enhance the community. Love Modesto is also a way to combat the all-too-frequently negative public image of the city, which over the years has ranked high on unenviable national lists including car thefts, home foreclosures and other miseries.

“We’re changing the narrative of our city. Our town has been put down for so long, largely by outsiders. We are saying, ‘No more.’ So many people are talking better about the community and wanting to do something themselves,” Pishney said. “There are more and more people taking ownership.”

At the Ralston Tower senior housing complex, volunteers gathered to raise spirits with snacks, haircuts and pet grooming. Jill Hailey, owner of Foxy Roxy’s Mobile Pet Salon, brought one of her full-service trucks to give free washes and clips to the residents’ prized pooches. This is the second year Hailey has participated in Love Modesto. She said she returned because of the great experience her first time out.

“I think it’s awesome to help out,” she said while giving the finishing touches to a dog named Chewie, after the “Star Wars” character Chewbacca. “Lot of these people are on low income and their dogs need to be taken care of, too. So we’re happy to help out.”

Inside, five stylists from across the region gave free haircuts to the residents. Hairdresser Carissa Callaway has taken part in Love Modesto for the past five years.

“I love that I can use my talents to give back to other people and help them out,” she said.

For those who were helped, such as 73-year-old Ralston Tower resident Frances Wells, the day is one they look forward to all year.

“It’s so nice that they come here for us,” she said while waiting for her Chihuahua Mickey to be groomed. “I really enjoy it. Everyone is so friendly and helpful.”

Marijke Rowland: 209-578-2284, @marijkerowland

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