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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, May 26, 2019 1:00 am

Good Samaritan helps clean up Gary

Retiree devotes time to mowing, picking up trash

JERRY DAVICH | Post-Tribune, Merrillville

GARY – Patty Sprague took a break from mowing the lawn of an abandoned home in the Emerson neighborhood of Gary.

A passing motorist drove by, honked the horn, and gave her a thumbs up at the intersection of 7th Avenue and Tennessee Street. Sprague waved back, wiped sweat from her face, and finished her can of Diet Coke.

“This is the Gary I have come to know,” said Sprague, an Ohio native who once knew Gary by only its infamous reputation.

Seven years ago, she moved to northwest Indiana after meeting her husband, a Crown Point resident. She was looking for something to do during her early retirement years. She figured she could flip a house by renovating and reselling it. The city of Gary, she learned, had hundreds of such homes.

She drove to the abandoned house at the intersection's northeast corner. It was covered by weeds and buried by neglect. She could barely find the front door.

“It looked like a war zone,” Sprague recalled. “So I started sprucing it up. I mowed the yard, knocked down the weeds, even painted the front door.”

Sprague changed her mind about flipping that old house. Instead, she adopted it. And then she adopted another nearby abandoned house. And another. And another.

“I eventually adopted this entire neighborhood,” she said.

Sprague began regularly mowing the overgrown lawns of abandoned homes in that historic neighborhood. She picked up litter and debris. She raked leaves. She met people she would otherwise never have known.

One day, she met Monica Rozier, a neighbor who asked what she was doing there.

“When I told her what I was up to, Monica told me, 'I'll give you three days before you quit,'” Sprague recalled. “That was seven years ago. Now we're doing it together.”

When Sprague kept returning, some locals began whispering that she may be an FBI or DEA agent under the guise of a Good Samaritan. They eventually learned that she is a self-appointed “blight buster,” as her Facebook page points out.

Our entire region, not only the city of Gary, needs more “blight busters” like Sprague and Rozier. All it takes is effort. No specialized skills. No God-given talents. Just the ability to give a damn, and to do something about it, as Sprague does.

“I meet people from all over Gary who've been inspired by what we're doing here,” Sprague said while trying to start her gas-powered leaf blower. “No one is more shocked than me.”

Think of all the hours most of us have spent arguing, debating or preaching to strangers on social media sites when we could've picked up some trash or mowed a lawn or helped someone obviously in need.

“If you put me on a treadmill in a gym, I can barely last a few minutes,” Sprague said. “But I can mow for hours every day. And just look how beautiful it is outside. It's so gratifying to do this. If you want to be inspired in life, you will be.”

Sprague keeps adopting abandoned homes and lots to mow and keep clean, often with help from neighbors and strangers who pass by. The city also has offered its services to pick up all the bags of trash she has collected through the years.

Some neighbors have brought Sprague and Rozier cold drinks on hot days. Others have joined their cleanup efforts, or given them gas money. Kids also have joined them to rake, mow or clean.

“A young girl once thanked me for cleaning off a sidewalk near her home, so she could walk for the first time from her home to her bus stop,” Sprague said. “It was bittersweet, you know.”

Sprague uses a makeshift ramp to roll out her lawn mower. Rozier keeps a riding mower in her garage. The dynamic duo do a lot of work in only a few hours. Their efforts have prompted neighbors here to not only mow their own yard, but also the abandoned home next door.

“They're learning that it ups the value of their own property, too,” Rozier said.

On the day I shadowed Sprague and Rosier, I counted no less than 14 neighbors outside their homes, mowing, pruning or cleaning up yards.

“Everyone around here knows Patty,” one older woman told me from her front yard garden. “We used to call her 'That woman who's always mowing.' Most of us now know her by name. She gives up hope for outsiders who think they know all about our city.”