The Nicest Place in Nevada: Sparks

NICEST PLACES IN AMERICA 2020 FINALIST
"The Helpful Burglar"

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A neighborhood burglary turns to the good, all part of the giving ways in this town.

Kathy Mitchell and her husband James moved to Sparks, Nevada, from Fresno, California, to have better access to doctors who could treat a condition that causes her to be immune-compromised. They felt especially good about the move because of the area’s economic stability—the casinos never shut down. That was prior to COVID-19.

James, a veteran who had been deployed several times to Iraq, took a job driving a truck from nearby Reno to San Francisco and was often away. Without him around and with a pandemic in full swing, things around the new home went undone; piles of equipment and furniture sat unassembled in boxes. Then came an ominous phone call from one of Kathy’s new neighbors, an elderly man named John Mendes: She had just been burgled.

The Mitchells had a very supportive community back in Fresno that had seen them through military deployments and raising young children. And as they began meeting new neighbors in their cul-de-sac, the couple next door stood out as similarly helpful.

No kidding: The “burglary,” John continued, had been committed by him. “He said he had taken a couple boxes of unassembled things from our garage and that we would have them back in an hour or two,” she explains.

patio set and barbecueCourtesy Kathy Mitchell (2)
Kathy’s “stolen” items were returned fully assembled.

As promised, John’s wife Marcella called a couple hours later to let Mitchell know that her handy husband was ready with their assembled barbecue grill and their patio set.

“I couldn’t believe he did that for us,” Mitchell says. “We didn’t have the tools yet to build them, and I could never have built them on my own. This may not seem like a big deal to others, but it really is to me.”

Small acts of large kindness have been happening more than usual all over Sparks, a Reno suburb already known as a friendly community.

Families began voluntarily bowing out of daycare to make room for those whose parents were essential workers, like Stephanie Wyckoff, who works at a grocery store in Sparks. “Some are shocked that my daycare is open. I know it’s a tough decision, but I couldn’t work without them, and I can’t bring them to work,” Wyckoff told the Reno Gazette Journal.

Even a heated shouting match in downtown Sparks between Black Lives Matter protesters and counter-protesters turned into a productive dialogue. “The parties came across the other’s line,” counter-protester Max Ryan told KTVN News. “So I said, if you come in peace, then give me a hug. The next thing I know, we’re having a civilized conversation… it’s amazing what one hug can do.”

As a newcomer to Sparks, Mitchell has come to expect support from people she barely knows.

“These people really go the extra mile to make you feel like they care and you matter,” she says.

Long exposure City of Sparks, Nevada cityscape at sunset.gchapel/Getty Images
Sunset over Sparks, Nevada

The Nomination

My husband was in the military and gone much of our marriage. We just celebrated 25 years of marriage this week and again he was gone on our wedding anniversary because he’s is an essential worker driving for the post office back and forth between Reno and San Francisco without a day off since the breakout of covid-19. We moved to Reno right before all this happened. and I am quite sick with a compromised immune system, consequently I’m left with boxes of things and especially things that need to be put together that I’m not capable of putting together. We are just getting to know our neighbors but they all seem very nice. We have an older couple next to us that are especially kind.

One day I got a phone call saying we have been burglarized — our garage door was open and we have been burglarized. I panicked and said, what do you mean? It was our nextdoor neighbor John, the elderly gentleman that is currently not working (he drives for one of the hotel chains in Lake Tahoe). He said he came and got two boxes from our garage, one with a barbecue grill and the other a patio set in tiny little boxes. He said we will have them back in about an hour to two. About two hours later we get a phone call from his wife saying they are ready. John had taken these boxes, assembled everything, which was quite a task and told me they were ready for pickup.

Kathy and JohnCourtesy Kathy Mitchell
Kathy Mitchell (left) and the neighborhood “burglar,” John Mendes

I couldn’t believe he did that for us. For one we didn’t have the proper tools, and, for two, I had no one to help me assemble them. His wife joked and said he has nothing to do and needed something to do anyway. But putting together a grill from scratch is not that much fun and neither probably is putting together two chairs and a table. I was so grateful to him for doing this for us — what a nice thing for someone to do during this time for a neighbor that he barely knows. I’m very grateful and I think we’re going to be happy in this new neighborhood.

We just moved here from California in January, so we are new to the area but have encountered so many kind people. We moved here because I am not well and the hospitals weren’t taking our insurance in our town in California, whereas they did take it here in the Reno area. (We also moved here because they had no state tax and I told my husband at least it’s a stable economy. They never shut down the casinos. Well, I was wrong. They shut down the casinos — never before, I think I cursed it.)

I was feeling somewhat insecure about leaving my friends back in the Fresno area where we had lived for 22 years. We had gone through the kids primary schooling and my husband’s deployment to Iraq. We had a great deal of community support there so I was scared to leave that behind and move to a new community. But I have found this community to be equally supportive. In such a short time, people that I barely know have helped me. I have a house cleaner that has saved my life, literally. The neighbor that helped me put together my new purchases. Restaurants that have cooked for me, because it’s hard for me to cook, doing take out and taken such good care of my special dietary needs. Ironically I’ve been ordering takeout at a restaurant and I’ve gotten to know the manager quite well. Little did I know through all this that his sister was my college roommate! We found out through a zoom reunion last weekend. With my lack of technology competence I was shocked I could even do a zoom anything!

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