Authors: BY MARK FERENCHIK
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Where others see boarded-up houses, Justin Lee sees hope.
Where others see trash along a freeway ramp, Lee sees potential.
Lee is only 17, but he has become a one-man cleanup crew in his Columbus neighborhood. He picks up trash on freeway ramps, plants flowers on street corners, cuts overgrown grass at vacant homes.
Lee said one thing that spurred him to act was seeing young children walk through trash and weeds to nearby Ohio Elementary School. "It's not motivating," he pointed out.
He hopes he encourages others to follow in his footsteps.
"One day of doing something is better than two days of thinking about it," he said.
Lee, the only child of Linda and Darrell Lee, is a senior at Harvest Preparatory School who plans to major in astronomy and astrophysics at Ohio State University. His demeanor is calm yet confident. He wants to meet Mayor Michael B. Coleman and President Barack Obama.
But first, he's just trying to spruce up the neighborhood east of Nationwide Children's Hospital, along and south of Interstate 70. Last year, he picked up 400 bags of trash and planted hundreds of flowers, he said.
During the Christmas season, he and his parents hung red, green, blue, silver and gold garland and wreaths from more than 50 light poles near their Ohio Avenue home.
People are noticing, too. The Lees are "really doing a great job of beautifying the neighborhood," said the Rev. Joshua Wagner, the pastor of Holy Rosary and St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, which is across the street from the Lee home. "They've planted flowers all over."
That includes orange and yellow chrysanthemums last fall at Directions for Youth & Families, a social-services agency. "Very pretty," administrative assistant Vontel Brown said. And, she added, such efforts make a difference in the neighborhood.
Brian Scarpino, who leads the Livingston Avenue Area Commission, especially welcomes the cleanup along the ramps at I-70 and on nearby streets. The trash that accumulates there gives a bad first impression of the neighborhood to drivers getting off the freeway, he said. "Unseemly. It's not good to see."
The challenges are ongoing.
Ohio Avenue borders the Old Oaks neighborhood, where about 3 in 10 homes are vacant. Just seven years ago, few homes were empty, Justin Lee said.
The city is spending $1.9 million to fix up Old Oaks. Some of the money will go toward renovating the four land-bank homes the city owns there. Those buying vacant and abandoned homes to fix them up and live in them for at least five years also can apply for that money.
Current homeowners are not eligible but can tap into other programs to pay for improvements.
Sherri Palmer of Keep Columbus Beautiful said she appreciates the Lees' efforts. But she worries about safety as they pick up trash on busy streets leading to the freeway. She also suggested that they join forces with area civic associations.
"We want to engage them so everyone's working together," Palmer said. "It makes sense."
Archie Lewis, 81, who has lived on S. Ohio Avenue for more than 30 years, said Justin Lee has planted flowers in her yard and on the nearby corner.
"The neighborhood can stand quite a bit of beautification," she said. "I would love to see more young people follow suit like him."
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com