PRESIDIO OF MONTEREY, California -- It was a sunny day, with the smells of spring in the air.
Well, the smell of something was in the air.
"It smelled like a litter box," said Master Sgt. Sonora Vasquez, Mission Support Flight Superintendent for the 517th Training Group.
The Verutti Park Project in San Juan Bautista got its start on the park's playground two years ago, as Vasquez and a childhood friend watched their own children and tried to enjoy a lunch they'd brought along.
Over the winter, animal waste had accumulated in sand that cushioned the ground beneath the equipment. As warmer weather emerged, so did the smell.
"We were daydreaming about how nice it would be - we were giving it a makeover, in our conversation," Gabriela Candelaria said. "I said 'It be great if someone cleaned this up.'"
Yes, that would be nice, Vasquez remembers thinking. So she figured out a way to make it happen.
When Vasquez first joined the Air Force, she dreamed of returning to her hometown of San Juan Bautista. When the Air Force assigned her to the Presidio of Monterey, she got her chance.
And almost immediately, she wondered if she'd made a mistake.
"It's a small town, and at first I wondered if there was anything here for me, for my family, my kids," she said. "But that's when it clicked for me. If we want anything to be here for us, we need to build it ourselves."
Vasquez started volunteering. As senior vice commander of VFW Post #3659, she helped raise money to replace the roof.
Encouraged by that success, she asked her Rotary Club chapter to help collect donations towards the playground's renovation. The board agreed.
Like any successful grassroots project, "it grew," Vasquez said.
The project started small. A round of online fundraising brought a few hundred dollars. Community events and organizational grants brought that total up to a few thousand. Then her husband, Ruben Gonzalez, directed a video that raised brought the support of local business owners.
When Vasquez learned of community grants that could provide more money for the project, she wrote a proposal and brought in $17,500 in government funds.
"What I didn't know was that when you get a grant like that, you have to go through a competitive bid process -- which I'd never done before," she said.
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Vasquez got a crash course in contracting, and watched the project's costs skyrocket. She asked local businesses to help with logistics, rallied volunteers, and kept supporters informed of the project's progress through Facebook.
"I didn't do it by myself," Vasquez said. "I have these ideas. And, well, this one isn't even my idea. But it's all about working with others."
Through it all, she never lost sight of her own, personal goal -- to help make San Juan Bautista a place she and her family could be proud to call home.
"When we did fundraisers, we tried to make them events that people in the community could appreciate," she said. "Whether people invested money, or invested their time … I spent hours and hours writing thank you notes."
"When she sees something that needs to be done, she's quick to see the steps that have to take place to accomplish it. And she doesn't let anything stop her," Candelaria said.
She credits her friend's leadership with bringing together a community of supporters and volunteers.
"Every step of the way, she validated the effort and time people are putting into the project. Even if it's a small contribution, it's a contribution, and she expresses gratitude for that," Candelaria said. "Her leadership is what made this project successful."
On February 21, Vasquez was finally able to make the announcement a whole community was waiting for.
"Goodbye, kitty litter!" she posted on the Verutti Park Project Facebook page.
In April, KSBW-TV named Vasquez as one of six central coast recipients of the Jefferson Award for public service. Candelaria nominated her for the award, which was presented April 4 at the Steinbeck Center in Salinas.
"It doesn't surprise me she was able to pull something like this together. She has an attitude, 'We're going to pull together and do this as a team,' and that's what she brings to everything, a positive, can-do attitude," said Lt. Col. Donald Brunk, 517th Training Group's deputy commander, who attended the ceremony.
Vasquez and her family recent moved to Monterey, but still consider themselves part of the San Juan Bautista community. She is still a member of the local VFW, and travels weekly to attend Rotary Club meetings and visit friends and family. Her husband is a resident artist at El Teatro Campesino and teaches at Gavilan College. And the Vasquez-Gonzalez and Candelaria children still meet up for play dates on the Verutti Park playground.
But these days, they play on freshly-painted equipment and poured-rubber safety surfaces, surrounded by new fences and landscaping.
Fundraising is underway for the project's third and final phase, and the city will soon build bathroom facilities.
"This town is mostly working class people and retirees, there's not a lot of money. We have one park - that's the only park that we have," Candelaria said. "It's a place where people come together, have conversations … It's where 'community' happens. And she made that possible."
Vasquez will represented the Central Coast at the Jefferson Awards Foundation national ceremony, which took place in Washington D.C. in June.