By Stacey Shepard
A major safety upgrade is coming to the community of Rexland Acres thanks to the effort of 17-year-old resident Jocelyn Cuevas.
The Golden Valley High senior, who first shed light on this issue in a commentary she wrote for South Kern Sol a year ago, was beaming with happiness Friday morning as community leaders announced a $6 million project to address flooding, build sidewalks and improve street safety in the low-income unincorporated community at the southeast edge of Bakersfield.
“Dreams do come true,” Cuevas said, getting emotional while talking about the changes coming to her neighborhood.
When it rains in Rexland Acres, entire streets flood and unpaved shoulders pool with water, forcing kids walking to Fairview Elementary into the street. Pedestrians get splashed with water as cars pass by. Sometimes the mail can’t be delivered and bills and checks go undelivered. Even in good weather, the lack of sidewalks make it difficult for people in wheelchairs of pushing strollers to navigate the dirt shoulders and uneven ground. The money, a mix of state, federal and local funds, will pay for storm drains, curbs and gutters, sidewalks, traffic stops, signage and flashing lights in front of the elementary school.
“Now the children will have safe walking paths to get to school,” said Cuevas, who has a younger sibling that attends the elementary school.
The lack of infrastructure wasn’t just a perceived danger. Over the past decade, the community saw 24 collisions between motorists and pedestrians or people on bicycles, including 3 fatalities, according to Yolanda Alcantar, the Kern County Public Works manager who worked on the application for the project. The project ranked 13th out of 456 in the state’s evaluation.
The sidewalk funding is a major achievement for a special effort underway since 2009 in South Kern, when The California Endowment launched Building Healthy Communities, a 10-year, $1 billion initiative to help 14 of the state’s most disadvantaged communities improve health and safety. The effort aims to engage local organizations, residents, especially young people, in creating change in their local community.
The Greenfield Walking Group, a partner of the initiative, was an early success that got started in 2006 when several local mothers started exercising in the local park despite the litter, stray pets, graffiti and gang members they encountered there. Eventually, they attracted more people who wanted to be active and they’ve since worked with local leaders to build walking paths, upgrade playground equipment and replace graffiti with murals in two neighborhood parks. When the walking group heard Cuevas’ idea for sidewalks, they quickly joined the effort. Those involved went door to door with their ideas, and soon hundreds of signatures, stories and even drawings by elementary students to take to local leaders.
That kind of organization made all the difference in getting an application together when funding came available, said Alcantar of the Public Works Department.
“There are many disadvantaged areas in Kern County,” she said. “We were lucky they had the community planning and a movement to make this successful. Not a lot of areas have that. It’s a really good example of how the community can make an impression.”