One man's trash is another man's treasure? Sounds good, but more often than not, one man's trash is another man's trash, too.

That's what about 2,500 volunteers discovered Saturday when they took up positions in the city's war on litter, their uniforms lime-green T's, their weapons — if they had any at all — back-saving grabbers to spare their hands from the ickiest of the ick (oh, and it gets icky).

But at Yokuts Park late Saturday morning, the trash horrors behind them, the winded volunteers were eating hot dogs — after first washing their hands, one assumes — chugging cold drinks and generally basking virtuously in the afterglow of their spring-cleaning, officially called the 16th Annual Great American Cleanup, part of the Keep Bakersfield Beautiful initiative. 

"We went to Williams School off Niles and filled a truck," said Lee Launstein, 78, cleaning his plate at the park with friend Stella Steinmetz.

The Williams School site was one of about 80 locations cleared of debris from 8 to 10 a.m., before the unseasonably warm weather dampened the enthusiasm of even the most righteous rubbish-rousting renegades. Downtown and the southeast were hot spots; even the Fox Theater's seats were de-gummed, thanks to the elbow grease of volunteers from Starbucks and PG&E.

At the park, hundreds lolled on grassy shaded hillsides while others braved the sun to hear one politician after another talk about litter. But when the speeches were finished, the real heroes of the day were honored: volunteers who labor to keep the city clean not just one day a year, but every week.

Hal Bopp and Sherri Aud received commendations for their commitment. They pick up trash every Wednesday morning, "50 weeks a year, rain, shine, fog, cold, heat," as Aud put it.

The two are part of a retirees group of about 10 who hit the streets, but they're not alone. Launstein, lauded for his volunteerism last year, is part of a different group.

"I've seen so much improvement," said Launstein, in the five years he's been at it. "We actually get in each other's way, all the groups."

Bopp said there's no way of knowing how many tons of trash he's picked in the three years he's been active, but an average bag holds about 20 pounds and his group fills 40 to 50 bags per haul.

"We help take down homeless encampments and work with code compliance," said Bopp, 70.

But let's get to the nitty-gritty, shall we? Just how gross does it get on the mean streets?

Used catheter bags are popular items around the Municipal Airport on Union Avenue, Bopp said. Steinmetz once picked up — ever so gingerly — a dead cat in an alley near Bakersfield High School.

"The one you can't print," said Launstein, "is 700,000 pounds of condoms that were used. I pick those up with a grabber."

Beauty in trash

So what happens to all that trash? Some is destined for the landfill, some will be recycled and some, in the hands of a creative teenager, will become art.

The highlight of the festival at Yokuts Park is a display of art projects by local high school students who use paper, old tools, egg shells, buttons — anything they can get their hands on — to sculpt, glue and weld astonishing pieces of ingenuity.

For the second year in a row, Kaylee Hunter, 17, a senior at Golden Valley High, has won top honors. Both years, Hunter — who hopes to be a veterinarian — welded her love of animals and art together, literally. Last year, she created a dog sculpture; this year, it's a wolf.

"My teacher had mentioned they have this cool art thing and I wanted to do something memorable," Hunter said, recalling when she first learned of the art contest last year.

"I said, 'Dad, can you teach me to weld?'"

A crowd of family and curious art lovers filed by the table where Hunter's wolf stood Saturday. The teen pointed out her variety of materials, including screws, gears, valves, etc., the bounty salvaged from a motorcycle engine a guy from church donated.

"I used a lot of keys that seemed worthless," she said. "But nothing is worthless."

The resourceful teen pointed out other materials, like nuts and bolts — "I think these things are called washers" — a fork, pliers, a wrench, gears, brake pads and an old hook.

A pair of door hinges serve as the animal's ears, the legs of a sawhorse double as the wolf's legs, dollhouse handles are the eyes and a rusty chain is the tail. The frame of her sculpture is a tomato cage.

Standing nearby was her beaming teacher Aaron Wherry, who noted Golden Valley won 10 of the 18 student awards.

"She's awesome," he said of his welding wonder. "The best thing is all our kids, no matter what their career is, can always do art on the side."


Jennifer Self can be reached at 661-395-7434. Follow her on Twitter at @TBCliving.

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