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Caltrans honors Auburn Club for highway cleanup

Small group of men in their 80s honored by recognition
By: Jenifer Gee Journal Staff Writer
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Finding a $19,000 check or a district attorney’s billfold full of credit cards paled in comparison to receiving a recent honor from the state for members of the Auburn Square and Compass Club. The California Department of Transportation District 3 Adopt-A-Highway Program recently named the club the 2007 Volunteer of the Year. Recently Caltrans officials left a somewhat cryptic message with Russell Harris, chairman of the cleanup group for the club. They told him to go look at the club’s sign that recognizes their participation in the Adopt-A-Highway program. When they went out there, they saw a big red ribbon tied to their post and found out they had won the statewide honor. “We were elated,” the 81-year-old said. “Somebody finally recognized our service after all these years.” Since May 1995, the club has been a cleaning their 2-mile stretch of Interstate 80 spanning from Ophir Road to Russell Road. Over the years the cleanup crew has dwindled from 20 members to four. The remaining members are all over 80, according to Harris, but that doesn’t stop them. Caltrans officials said the group was selected for their “outstanding efforts.” “They’re an exemplary group of citizens. Groups only have to pick up litter 12 times a year and they’re out there once a week and they’re all people in their 80s,” said Kari Ehrman, Caltrans spokeswoman. Over the 10-plus years the group has been cleaning the highway, they’ve stumbled upon interesting “treasures,” Harris said. During last week’s cleanup Harris was $10 richer when he found an unclaimed bill. The group also found a $19,000 check they were able to return to the owner. They also once returned a district attorney’s billfold that was full of credit cards and cash. Another time they stumbled on a portfolio of “beautiful artwork.” The group traced it back to a Placer High School art student. Someone had broken into the student’s locker, stolen the artwork and scattered it along the interstate. Of course there are also the old tires, aluminum cans and dirty diapers. The group recycles the aluminum cans and donates the money to a children’s hospital. Harris said the group wears the leather gloves and grippers Caltrans provides. They also pull on the bright yellow safety vests and hard hats. But even with the bright yellow vests, safety isn’t guaranteed. When asked if there have been some near misses while collecting trash on the highway, Harris quickly responded, “Oh yeah.” “That’s why the buddy system works. Two people work together so one keeps an eye open for the other guy,” Harris said. Harris said the age of the group members, two of whom are 86 and the others 80 or older, doesn’t prevent them from doing a “good thing.” “You’re never too old,” he said. “We’d like to keep going as long as we can. We also recognize that we might be running out of time as far as physically being able to do the job so we’re always looking for someone new.” Harris said he and his fellow highway cleaners take pride in the fact that there seems to be less and less trash on their stretch of the highway as compared to when the group first started cleaning it. “I know we must be doing something good because Caltrans says we’re the cleanest area in their whole jurisdiction,” Harris said. The Journal’s Jenifer Gee can be reached at jeniferg@goldcountrymedia.com or post a comment.