Making Kaufman NEATer

With one weekend, 13 projects and two 30-yard dumpsters in the books, Marcy Ratcliff and the Kaufman NEAT program are celebrating yet another successful outing.

On the morning of March 30, Kaufman’s Director of Development Services Marcy Ratcliff and about 35 volunteers from the community gathered together at City Hall armed with bright green shirts and a mission to make Kaufman just a little bit prettier. They set out into what they have designated zone four of Kaufman along the eastern side of Washington St. from 11th Street up to 4th and worked for the majority of the day filling two 30-foot 

dumpsters with various unwanted refuse and old furniture from area homes and trimming overgrown trees and shrubbery for some of the town’s elder stateswomen.

It was the 15th project NEAT has undertaken since its first one back in April 2010 and Ratcliff has been involved in every single one.

“We have a lot of great volunteers in our community,” Ratcliff said. “I think one of the great things about Kaufman County is that people like to work together.”

Over the course of NEAT’s decade of history, volunteers have done everything from cleaning brush and limbs and cutting grass to building handicapped ramps for the elderly or disabled, replacing old doors and painting aging residences. The goal is simple: the make Kaufman a cleaner, more visually appealing place and to increase (or at least maintain) property values across the board.

When Ratcliff helped get the project off the ground in the Spring of 2010, many Kaufman homeowners were in need of assistance with maintaining their properties. As the United States was plunged deep into the heart of the Great Recession, making sure the trees and hedges were properly trimmed or putting a new coat of paint on an aging household were far from the chief concerns in the minds of many. And while Ratcliff saw the apparent need for proper maintenance on many of the older houses around town, she also recognized that while many would be happy to comply, a significant portion simply didn’t have the means to buy a couple of cans of paint or time to trim the limbs off a sagging tree.

“We knew we needed to do something, especially in the older parts of town,” Ratcliff said. “The housing stock is definitely aging and nobody had any money, especially in the core part of town. So we thought this would be an avenue that we could help get some things done. And it’s really worked out well.”

Ratcliff split the town into 13 zones and she and NEAT volunteers began traveling to two each year, one in the Spring and another in the Fall. Before heading over, the Kaufman code enforcement officer heads out to the zone and notifies property owners of any areas where their properties are out of compliance. But rather than handing out tickets, the officer gives them a NEAT application, all of which are reviewed by Marcy so she can match the most needy residents with volunteers ready to lend a helping hand. At this point, and although the project has been successful over the years, Ratcliff and NEAT volunteers are making their second round with no plans of stopping any time soon.

“We wanted to keep it [going] because by the time 10 years passes, you’ve got new home owners and tenets,” Ratcliff said. “I think we’ve made an impact but, of course, by the time you come through nine years later, it needs work again.”

As Ratcliff has worked to help maintain property values and make Kaufman a more visually appealing place to live, she has also worked to increase the visibility and awareness of the NEAT program as a whole. What started as a word-of-mouth volunteer effort has grown into an expected community service event. While Ratcliff once sought out volunteers at area churches like the Methodist Church, the Life Church, the Assembly of God, the Church of Christ, the Country Bible Church and St. Ann’s Catholic Church, she now has contacts at all of them that regularly call her asking if she knows of any homes that need work even outside of NEAT’s bi-annual clean ups. And perhaps even more importantly, homeowners themselves have caught on and Ratcliff has seen a growing amount of voluntary compliance.

“It gives people an opportunity to do something with their property,” Ratcliff said. “They may want to get rid of stuff, but it costs money and some don’t have it. Even if your property doesn’t have a large value on it, it has value to yourself. Everybody’s home is their castle, whether it’s an apartment, a duplex or a single-family house. And most people want to take care of it. They want their neighborhood to look nice.”

It has been a productive and successful decade for Ratcliff and her crusade to beautify Kaufman. But while NEAT has been accomplishing its goal for nearly 10 years, the projects have also given Marcy the opportunity to do something more important: get to know the many people who call Kaufman home.

“I have two hats,” Ratcliff said. “My first hat is as the Director of Development Services. My job is to keep the community going forward and to keep property values up. This program helps with that. On the Marcy Ratcliff side, though, I think it’s an opportunity to get to know people. It’s an opportunity to see who needs help. You drive down the streets, but you don’t know who is in the homes. You don’t know what their situations are. It’s an opportunity to get to meet people you would never get to meet. And it has been an honor and a privilege to work not only with the home-owners but also the churches.”

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