In Their Words: Four Ceres Families

When you ask Ceres residents about their city, you can get a wide range of answers. If there are similarities, it's their enjoyment of its small-town feel. Here's what a few residents had to say.

The Godinez Family

Karina Castellaños, 32, husband Juan Carlos Godinez, 32, and daughter Ashly, 3

Married in Mexico, Karina and Juan came to the United States to start their family.

Karina is from a small town in the Mexican state of Jalisco. The couple started their U.S. life in Nebraska, where Juan worked construction jobs. Karina is a stay-at-home mom.

"We didn't like the atmosphere (in Nebraska) or the climate," Karina said in Spanish. "The work is seasonal there. It snows a lot in the winter, and there wasn't enough construction work going on."

Juan's construction trade brought them to Ceres; he worked on the Kaiser hospital on Dale Road in Modesto.

The family needed a place to stay, so they chose Ceres because the rent was affordable. They rent an apartment in south Ceres for $725 a month.

"The rent is so much cheaper here and it's a small town, where I can get around easily," Karina said.

Although Ceres is seeing more racial diversity, she said she hasn't noticed any tension that sometimes comes with cultural differences.

"I live near (Middle Eastern) people, near white people, and they all say hello to me and they're real nice," Karina said.

Ceres is very similar to her hometown, she said.

"They're both small and easy-going towns," Karina said. "In my hometown, you knew everyone in town; what family they belonged to, what they did for work. Ceres is a lot like that. It doesn't have the fast-paced lifestyle of a bigger city."

While there are parks, schools and stores nearby, Karina said there are too many empty lots in Ceres that make the town look "ugly and vacant." She said she would like to see shopping centers move in, maybe even a mall.

The Cool Family

Don, 54, Jacki and their daughter Taylor, 9

Don was born and raised in Ceres. After brief stints in Texas, Arkansas and the Dakotas from 1990 to 2003, the Cools returned to California and moved into the house Don grew up in on Stanford Avenue in central Ceres. Don said he returned to a hometown he didn't recognize.

"We moved back, and, boy, did we see some changes," he said. "It (once) had a Mayberry flair to it. It was a very safe town. I remember as a young kid, 10 years old, walking to Tuolumne River miles away. Our parents didn't really think anything of it. It was a town where everybody knew everybody."

The biggest shock for Don upon moving back to Ceres was the traffic -- congestion on Highway 99 and main streets -- and the deteriorating courtesy of drivers, he said. He also sees large gangs of people walking around town.

"I have a 9-year-old daughter. I can't give her the kind of life I had here. It's almost like she's become a prisoner in her own home," he said.

Still, Don gives high marks to Ceres' schools and city leaders. To help keep Ceres' small-town charm and keep its quality of life, Don said, officials and law enforcement need to focus on the basics, such as enforcing speeding laws.

"They let a lot of little things go, and a lot of little things add up to big things," he said, noting how often drivers run stop signs in his neighborhood.

Wanting to be part of the solution, Don leads a neighborhood watch group that works with city staff and police officers.

The Hebb Family

Alicia, 33, Kevin, 39, and three children, ages 4 to 9

The fivesome moved to Ceres from Fremont in 2000 for cheaper housing -- they rented a four-bedroom house from an uncle on the north end of town, then bought it from him.

"This is the only place we're ever going to own a home," Kevin said.

Kevin works as a probation officer, commuting to Fremont three or four days a week. He's looked for probation jobs in Stanislaus, he said, but the pay is too low -- he earns about $80,000 a year. Alicia stays home to raise their children.

"That was always part of the plan. I grew up a latchkey kid for awhile. I knew it was important (to have a parent stay home) not only from my own experience but also from my job dealing with at-risk kids," Kevin said.

First impression of Ceres: "I remember coming down 99 to Hatch. I thought 'This is kinda scary,' " Alicia said. Kevin thought, "This is kinda small," he said.

Both thought Ceres looked very industrial and that many shopping areas were empty and run down.

"It was a mixed feeling -- it was nice and quaint, and we kept asking ourselves, 'Could we live here?' " Kevin said. "We warmed up to it really quick."

What they'd like to see more of in Ceres: "Costco, Target, to shop and not be swamped like in Modesto," Alicia said.

"I hope they never try to be like the Bay Area," Kevin said. "I love Ceres for its small-town charm. One reason it drew me is that idea that people are friendly, people know each

other, the community is relatively close."

The Kee Family

Jewell, 69, and Lyode, 76, four children and 15 grandchildren

Longtime Ceres residents, Jewell and Lyode moved to the city in 1967, when the population was one-fifth its current size. The wisecracking couple are church regulars, finish the newspaper crossword puzzle daily and spend time with family, most of whom live within a 10-mile radius.

The couple has noticed a more diverse population in Ceres over the years -- what once was an all-white neighborhood in central Ceres where the Kees live now has about a dozen Latino families, Jewell said.

In the 1960s, minorities were found in labor camps, she said. Now, "I don't think there's a neighborhood in the city that doesn't have its fair share of races. It's not the little white town we moved into," she said.

On growth: "Until they get sewer and water (working), there should be a moratorium on residential building," Jewell said.

Things they'd like to see more of in Ceres: more variety for eating and shopping, more police officers, and safer streets.

How does Ceres attract more economic development? "We're so small and jammed between Turlock and Modesto. Someone would really have to pull a rabbit out of their hat to get shopping into town," Jewell said.

-- Michelle Hatfield

and Rosalio Ahumada