Ellen J. Taft

Picker-upper of roadside trash

Ellen Taft patrols a mile-long stretch of Mountain Creek Parkway every day, picking up trash in almost any weather, keeping the neighborhood clean. And it’s not just soda cans and cigarette butts. Taft hauls discarded mattresses, tires, furniture and mountains of black plastic lawn bags full of litter to the dump.

“A lot of people will stop and talk to me, and I’ve gotten to know a lot of my neighbors that way,” she says. “Kids call me the trash lady, but I tell you, they don’t litter in front of me.”

Taft spends hours on road sides with her pickup truck and a shovel. That would be laudable for anyone, but Taft also has multiple sclerosis, which causes muscle weakness and spasms, among other problems.

“It takes me a really long time,” she says. “I used to be able to park my truck and walk out pretty far and bring stuff back. But now I have to drive my truck the whole way.”

Aside from trash pick-up, Taft puts in full-time hours as a community volunteer.

“She just does so much for the community, and she never asks for anything in return,” says Bobby Cutler Hill, who recently gave Taft a volunteerism award on behalf of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Pollution and erosion cause urgent problems in her neighborhood, including small landslides. And Taft has stood up to developers who she believes are considering profit over environment.

She spends hours — sometimes eight or 10 hours at a time — laboring to dig up septarian nodules — large rocks formed from decaying animals and plants thousands of years ago when our part of the world was the sea floor. She donates the rocks to schools, from elementary to college, so that students can break them open and study the fossilized insides.

“The kids really get into it,” she says.

She also serves on the city Park and Recreation Board, which is a volunteer position, and now she advocates for parks throughout the city. Whenever she visits city parks, she brings a trash bag.

“It’s work that no one else wants to do,” she says. “If I don’t do it, no one else will.”

James Graham

Runner extraordinaire

At the White Rock Marathon in December, five kids from Oak Cliff ran 13.2 miles non-stop, completing the half marathon. They ranged from ages 9 to 15, and they did it for fun.

“She likes running,” says Matylda Valdez of her 13-year-old daughter Zayra, who ran the half. “It helps her focus.”

None of the kids, who make up the core members of Oak Cliff Racing, would have done it without Coach James Graham, who is passionate about running, especially as it relates to the running club he started two years ago at St. Cecilia School. He was the school’s gym teacher.

“We didn’t have a lot of equipment, and there were really no teams,” he says.

Running made sense because it doesn’t require expensive equipment or facilities. And most of the time, race organizers waive entry fees for the club.

The youngest runner is a 6-year-old who used to be called “Kindergarten Kevin”, but now that he’s in first grade he has changed his nickname (all team members have them) to “Five K”.

“He’s the most famous kid at every race,” Graham says. “Everybody notices this little kid who just looks so happy to be out there.”

So far, the team has run dozens of 5k and 10k races. Griselda Solorzano, who is the team’s captain, has run about 50 races in all. Another team member, 16-year-old Michael Trejo, came in first overall at the recent Dash for Dignity 5k.

“Michael’s an elite runner now,” Graham says. “He wins races all the time.”

Graham left St. Cecilia last summer, but he had no intention of letting the running club go. Now he’s teaming up with City Pace, which combines training and academics.

“Running is the perfect sport for a kid because you can’t fail,” he says. “It promotes good behavior and pride. All these kids have good grades, you know? No discipline problems.”

It’s been a struggle for Graham, who was job hunting when we interviewed him. But he still runs with his club several times a week, and he takes the kids to any race they want to run. Ask him why he does it, and it’s almost as if he doesn’t know why he is so committed.

“It’s kind of crazy, really,” he says. “But they’ve gotten just a few opportunities, and they’ve done amazing things.”

Last year, Graham took three kids to a race in Boulder, Colo., his hometown, and it was their first time to see mountains.  Now those three want to go back for another race in May, and they want to bring the whole team.

The team also is getting its first chance to race in Oak Cliff at the Dash for the Beads 5k Feb. 6.

Graham’s goal has more to do with academic success than finish lines. He wants to see the kids receive scholarships to parochial high schools in Dallas.

“Hopefully the rewards will come down the road,” he says.

Abby & Lucy Pantoja

Volunteers at the SPCA

It’s not every day that a teenager begs her mother to do community service. But 16-year-old Adamson High School student Abby Pantoja pestered her mom, Lucy, enough times that the two finally started volunteering at the SPCA of Texas about a year ago.

“She kept bugging me about it,” says Lucy, 34, who frequently volunteers with children’s charities through her job at Geico.

“She wants to be a vet.”

Every Saturday, mother and daughter drive to a PetSmart in Duncanville and spend most of the day cleaning cat cages and litter boxes, playing with adoptable cats and talking to prospective adopters.

Sometimes they’re tired from the week, and they don’t feel like going. But then they think about the cats. The payoff is when kitties are adopted. Abby recently found homes for three cats on a single Saturday.

“If we can’t go, it makes us feel bad,” Lucy says. “And sometimes we just don’t want to go, but we go anyway.”

For Abby, who loves animals and says biology is her best subject, it’s a good opportunity to learn about veterinary work. Since she started volunteering, her grades have improved.

“She’s more focused on her goals and what she wants to do in life,” Lucy says.

Finding your passion and doing things that make you happy is the way to succeed, Lucy says, and she tries to instill that idea in Abby and her 14-year-old brother.

“I just want them to understand that if you pay it forward, you are blessed,” she says. “We raised them that whatever you give, you will get back 10 times more.”

Volunteering already is paying off for Abby. She recently was selected for a paid internship at UT Southwestern Medical Center. She’ll sacrifice six Saturdays at the pet store to work in the hospital’s labs.

But even without that, the payoff is profound, Abby says.

“It’s relaxing,” she says. “It’s good to know that I’m helping animals get adopted and find good homes.”n