On the surface, Aletha June Schelby Nel and General Vang Pao came from completely different worlds.
They never even met each other.
But their lives — and the memory of their lives — have crossed paths more than once, and in a most optimistic way.
At the most recent Merced City Council meeting, leaders voted unanimously to name a future park site in north Merced as General Vang Pao Park, and the fun zone inside it as the Aletha June Playground.
The decision capped off a night of honoring beloved community members including Staff Sgt. Frank J. Gasper, a fallen local hero of the Iraq War. An existing mini park located at Circle Drive and 23rd Street will bear his name. Also, a mini park at 11th and H streets will now be known as Little Angels Park / Parque de los Angelitos in remembrance of young people impacted by violence in south Merced.
To understand how these good things fell together — the story of Aletha and Vang in particular — it’s important to look back at the city’s process to develop and expand local parks as positive outdoor spaces meant for joy and endless possibilities.
Merced, with a population of 87,110, has a total of 41 parks of all shapes and sizes. It’s also one of the fastest growing cities in the state, and yet one that is still recovering from the housing bubble burst in 2008.
The National Recreation and Park Association suggests a ratio of 10.1 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents in a city. While Merced’s stated goal is 5 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents, the latest population figures show there are only 3.42 acres per 1,000 residents.
City officials are quick to tell residents that new parks in Merced are typically either funded through grants or money collected from fees charged to housing developers. Grants typically require serving the lowest income brackets in the community, and the city has received nearly $5.5 million in the last decade to help build and renovate parks in the most economically disadvantaged sections of town — mostly in the south region. South Merced is also an older portion of the city, so with the injection of grant funding, today it has more than twice as many parks as the northern end of town.
It may sound strange, but simply put, north Merced is considered “park poor.”
So it is with this backdrop that city officials started drawing up plans and applying for Prop. 68 grant funding (taxpayer money meant for improving park access) for three locations in the Bellevue Ranch subdivision. Two of the proposed park sites were already named as Lester Yoshida Park (along G near Cardella) and Charles Ogletree Park (at Bellevue and G). The third site, located at Freemark Avenue and Heitz Way, did not have name.
All three sites were entered in last year’s competitive round for state funding, but none of them were approved.
Nevertheless, as part of the process, several community meetings were held in north Merced to gauge what residents wanted to see and enjoy in their neighborhood parks.
At the park with no name, residents “overwhelmingly” wanted to see a high level of ADA accessibility in the entire area, but especially in the playground.
“There are minimal ADA standards but they wanted to go beyond,” said Jennifer Arellano, a city recreation supervisor. “They wanted things like ramps so people who use wheelchairs could get up to the slides. They wanted swings with improved access for people with disabilities, and they wanted sensory type play equipment that would accommodate children living with autism.”
An image of Magical Bridge Playground came to their minds. The world-renowned concept park in Palo Alto was designed to be “socially inclusive for the growing autistic population, cognitively challenged, visually and hearing impaired, physically limited, and the aging population.”
Meanwhile, there was growing interest to name this new park along Freemark Avenue. A few names were put forth, but in the end, community supporters sent two applications for naming the park site to the city’s Recreation and Parks Commission.
One was for Vang. And another was for Aletha.
Vang’s supporters included Moua Thao of Merced Lao Family Community, Inc. and former Mayor Mike Murphy.
“Merced has 41 parks but not one of them is named after a member of the Hmong community,” said Murphy who left office in December. “One of my goals as mayor was to help change that.”
General Vang Pao was a good bet for a new park name. His life is certainly the most well-documented and legendary among local Hmong community members.
Vang led thousands of Hmong guerrillas in the covert, CIA-backed campaign against the communists in Laos. As one of the noted generals during the so-called “Secret War,” Vang is credited for breaking down barriers and paving the way for Hmong people to find freedom, prosperity and success all over the world.
This included in Merced where General Vang Pao helped create a nonprofit organization — Lao Family Community, Inc. — to help Southeast Asian refugees find jobs, receive education assistance and vocational training, and learn American culture while maintaining their family roots. His appearances in town were also a highlight of the annual Hmong New Year celebrations at the Merced County Fairgrounds.
Vang died in January of 2011 from heart failure.
In contrast, Aletha June Schelby Nel was a native Californian who moved to Atwater at a young age.
When Aletha was still a toddler, she developed a virus of unknown origins that caused a swelling in her spine that started to affect her ability to walk. From her belly button down, she eventually lost the ability to operate, and had to relearn how to walk with crutches.
She needed a wheelchair or crutches to get around, but family members pointed out that “she never really thought of herself as disabled.”
Aletha became a talented musician, learning the violin and the viola, and she eventually studied music at UC Berkeley. While at the university, she fell in love with traveling through many trips with an ensemble choir. After graduating in 2002, she continued to travel the world — on her own — during and after college. She even spent a year in India.
From there she found a job working at Compumentor Corporation, working up to project director before moving to director of children’s programs at Cornerstone Church in San Francisco, where she had become a Christian and met her husband Vincent. They were married in 2014, and a year later Aletha gave birth to her son Hosea.
Sadly, a month later, on Oct. 8, 2015, Aletha died of complications that arose during her pregnancy. She was only 35.
Interestingly, Aletha’s grandfather was was Floyd Schelby, former Merced County Superintendent of Schools, and the namesake of the Special Education school in Livingston.
A generation before Aletha was born, the elder Schelby helped start the school after realizing that a whole population of severely disabled kids were not even attending school and their families had zero support or respite.
So naturally, considering Aletha’s own life and family history, supporters for a park in her name were drawn to the much-talked about ADA features at the north Merced park in question.
There’s also the fact that out of the 42 parks in Merced, only three are named after women.
In the application to the commission it was stated: “Growing up as a disabled person in Merced, Aletha was keenly aware of spaces that were inclusive for her, and those that “took more work” for her to participate in. She appreciated ramps and accessibility that would make her life easier.”
Needless to say, Recreation and Parks commissioners were very moved by both proposals for the park’s name.
And so they worked out a compromise with the applicants: the entire park Freemark Avenue and Heitz Way would be named after General Vang Pao, and the ADA-supported playground would bear Aletha’s name.
All they needed was the City Council’s approval, and that seemed likely.
Arellano, the supervisor with the Parks and Recreation Department, was also pleased. She figured the names, and the stories behind the names, will help the project in the next round of grant reviews coming up this year.
And then something special happened.
A day after the commission meeting regarding the parks, Arellano received an email from Genevieve Bardini-Davis, a friend of Aletha’s and a former program director for the Valley Crisis Center. Bardini-Davis passed on a few old emails from Aletha, and an online link to a blog Aletha helped create called Peace For Mai See.
It turns out, back in 2009, a generous and thoughtful Aletha helped in the local awareness effort to gain funeral rights for a young Hmong woman named Mai See who was a victim of domestic violence. Due to cultural restrictions in the complex case, a proper burial for Mai See was being delayed.
The case was considered a “huge deal” in the Hmong community. So eventually a very powerful man was called in to help with the situation.
Who was the man?
None other than General Vang Pao.
The general even traveled from Wisconsin to attend the funeral once everything was worked out. Aletha did not attend the event, but in a special way, the two indeed both worked on an important solution for the Merced community.
“It was just this cool little moment,” Arellano said after she learned of the connection. “It was like ‘wow, they both were destined to share a park together. And nobody knew. It never came up that there was this connection during the application process. So that was pretty surprising … and neat.”
Before the City Council signed off on the naming of the park and playground on Feb. 16, Mayor Matt Serratto commented: “The way their lives crossed is pretty fitting and beautiful that their names will be connected to that park forever.”
Chi Neng Vang, the son of Gen. Vang Pao, sent in a letter to the city in support of his father.
“When thinking about a woven fabric, it reminds me of the times when my father and I would visit the City of Merced each year to open the Hmong New Year celebrations and see all the bright, colorful Hmong woven traditional clothes that men and women, boys and girls would wear to attribute to the joyful atmosphere. A woven fabric is akin to the Hmong, “Paj ntaub,” or flower cloth which illustrates our people’s customs and our history. In this sense, we consider that the naming of a park after General Vang Pao is not only dignified but like the Hmong woven tapestry (paj ntaub), Merced can showcase and share its own unique community story to the rest of the world: a story that reflects the diversity of its community and the journey of how far Merced has come.”
The younger Vang added that the new park name “would put Merced on the map to become the first city in the nation and the world to name a park after an American of Hmong descent who was tapped by the United States of America to lead his men to fight in the name of freedom and democracy.”
In all, members of the Merced community provided testimony from more than 20 public comments that were sent in to the Merced City Council on Tuesday for the meeting on the park names.
Many voiced support for Staff Sgt. Frank J. Gasper as the namesake for the existing mini park located at Circle Drive and 23rd Street in Merced.
Gasper was a native Mercedian who enlisted in the U.S. Army after high school. He was quickly promoted to Staff Sergeant and went on to participate in four deployments to Iraq in Support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He served for six years.
“Frank didn’t join because he didn’t have anything else to do or he was in trouble,” explained his mother in a nomination letter to the city. “Frank joined because he had a burden to serve and he took pride in serving his country. He felt he wanted to make a difference. …
“Many times when he wrote home, he would say: “I wouldn’t be anywhere else, doing anything else than what I am doing today. … I feel I am making a difference.”
Gasper was on his fourth deployment in Iraq, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom,
when he was killed by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) on May 25, 2008.
Finally, the City Council also approved a new name for the existing mini park at 11th and H streets — “Little Angels Park / Parque de los Angelitos” — in remembrance of youth and families impacted by violence in south Merced.
Councilmember Jesse Ornelas was involved with developing the name, along with families who lost loved ones to community violence, including Gloria Vasquez whose son, Beniot Aguirre, was murdered in front of Tenaya Middle School; and also Desi Romero, whose daughter, Samantha, was murdered at a party several years ago. “There was a collective agreement that the park should be a space inclusive of all the families impacted by community violence,” Ornelas wrote down in an application to the city. “Our reason for naming this park is really to shine a light on the need for a helping space that is accessible for our community during a time of trauma. We picked this park because it is very neglected, and in turn, has the most opportunity to be improved. Young people in Merced have endured so much trauma in 2020, so for the city to provide an opportunity for hope in healing, that speaks volumes.”
He added “The families that participated in the naming of this park envision the park to have lots of art such as murals on the side fences and along a back wall that can be built.
According to Arellano, the city parks supervisor, the next step in the Proposition 68 grant funding process is to submit requests for new city parks by March 12.
Merced plans to resubmit applications for the three proposed northern parks — Vang Pao, Lester Yoshida and Charles Ogletree — as well as three new applications for the proposed “Bob Hart Square Park” in downtown Merced, “Alfarata Ranch” park site in south Merced, and one known as CP-42 that will include multiple soccer fields, also in south Merced.
Each application can request up to $8.5 million, but city officials say their current applications are not close to that level.
“The state could choose all six requests if they wanted,” Arellano told the Times, “but that’s unlikely. It’s highly competitive.”
Merced should know by summer if any of the proposed new parks were chosen for funding.