By Eric Kurhi
HAYWARD -- It was midmorning on a February school day in 2010 when Glassbrook Elementary Principal Ruben Pulido glanced out his office window and beheld an inspiring sight.
A "fine, elderly pair" was walking the lawn in front of his school, pausing frequently to pick up and bag bits of paper and trash that accumulate all too rapidly in the South Hayward neighborhood between Harder and Tennyson roads.
"That was it, I rushed out and stopped them," Pulido said. "I said, 'First of all, I want to thank you for what you are doing here, but I need to know -- who are you? Who are you working with? I need you to know that we need you, and we need to make this a bigger thing.' "
They gave Pulido the name of the go-to guy: Greg Galati.
Since then, neighborhood cleanup efforts spearheaded out of Glassbrook have expanded to the point where, on a recent Saturday, 150 volunteers fanned out into the neighborhood to pick up trash, drag dumped items to the curb for removal, spread mulch around recently planted redwoods and improve the state of the streets in general.
Galati, who bought a house in Hayward 12 years ago, started the movement as a one-man act, picking up litter while on his morning jog.
"The streets were really trashed," he said. "An amazing density of paper everywhere, and a lot of dumping. It was quite shocking. So I made it part of my routine, but I was stopping every two feet to pick something up."
Galati approached the city's Keep Hayward Clean and Green Task Force, which organizes large-scale trash abatement efforts throughout the city about once a month. Then-director Chuck Horner told him that the task force encourages residents to create localized teams to tackle blight on an ongoing basis, and Galati brought up the idea at a National Night Out block party in August 2009.
Thus, a core group was formed: Galati, David Ringo, Darral Hanson, Dick Hammer and Jose Silva. They began meeting on the first Saturday morning of the month for two hours at a time, focusing on a five-block stretch of Huntwood Avenue.
"For 10 months, it was just five guys," Galati said. "We were doing Huntwood, from about Gading to Schafer. Then Ruben got Glassbrook involved." The principal sent robo-calls to parents, getting them and their children to come out and lend a hand. Soon those five guys turned into a 100-strong all-ages squad. Hayward gave Galati a grant for fluorescent safety vests, a couple years' worth of plastic bags and 100 blue-and-white handled trash grabbers.
He also got AmeriCorps involved, as well as Cal State East Bay, where freshmen in an introduction to college class are sent out into the community to do volunteer service. About 60 university students were on hand last month. He has also partnered with City Councilman Mark Salinas, who brings his Kid's Breakfast Club group to Glassbrook to cook breakfast for the volunteers and make sure no one goes out on an empty stomach.
Galati said he appreciates all the help but at the same time stressed the importance of making sure it continues as a neighborhood effort, with participants taking ownership of the streets they live on.
"Greg is a great guy and an excellent example of a citizen who is providing leadership in their own area," said Hayward Mayor Michael Sweeney, who honored Galati with an official proclamation in 2010. "The whole idea behind the Keep Hayward Clean and Green Task Force is that if Hayward is going to look better, a lot of that initiative and leadership is going to have to come from the community, and Greg is a sparkling example for modeling that idea."
At last month's cleanup, Ringo eyed a turquoise California king mattress and box spring that had been discarded near the Union Pacific Railroad tracks on Huntwood. A young volunteer dragged the bedroom set to the curb, and a city crew was summoned to come pick it up later that afternoon.
"There's a spillover effect," Ringo said. "People see this as a neutral place -- it doesn't seem like it belongs to anyone. It's not like you are dumping in someone's front yard," he said.
"It's the broken window theory," Galati said. "You see broken windows in a neighborhood and come to the conclusion that nobody cares about it. If people see litter is already there, they think it's OK to throw more trash out the window as they drive through."
Ringo, Galati and Pulido agreed that the area is far better looking than it once was and were quick to share credit with the folks who keep turning out to make sure it stays that way.
"What it's doing, is building trust and confidence and the notion of caretaking and cleanliness," Pulido said. "There's a carry-over. It helps keep the school clean. It's beautiful, and the hope is that it becomes part of daily life."