ANTIOCH -- What good is a welcome sign if nobody can see it?
That thought crossed Ian Valenta's mind every time his family drove eastbound into Antioch on Highway 4. He noticed his view of the old wooden "Welcome to Antioch" sign obstructed by sound walls that were added as part of a half-billion-dollar project to widen the East Contra Costa freeway.
After doing some research last fall, Valenta, 17, and his father, Chris, found out that city and local transportation officials had no plans to relocate the structure. "Immediately, I thought we had to do something," Ian Valenta said. "It didn't make sense why they wouldn't move it. It says 'City of Antioch' on it."
In addition to promoting the city, the Valentas determined that fixing and moving the decades-old sign would be a good Eagle Scout leadership project for Ian.
He and his twin brother, Ryan, are members of the Concord-based Boy Scouts Troop 1994, specifically for young men with special needs. Both Valenta boys have mild autism but are still highly functioning.
The criteria for Eagle Scout projects in this troop, however, is comparable with those of other troops, said Scoutmaster David Rowntree.
Earlier, Ryan completed a new bench to replace a well-worn one on the city's municipal pier for his Eagle Scout project.
With the city's permission, the Valentas and a couple of family friends took down the 60-year-old sign on June 6 and set out to spruce it up and move it to a spot farther west where motorists can see it.
"The first thing I noticed, which surprised me, is that it was in such good condition. I wasn't expecting that, especially considering there's no shelter from the elements," Ian Valenta said.
As part of the Eagle project, his task was to dole out instructions to others and schedule work parties to help complete the project. The scope of this undertaking, however, led him to do some work himself.
The twins spent the past few weeks putting pressure-treated wood with liquid nails on the back of the delicate sign to reinforce it for decades to come. They found the original sign is actually five pieces that are fastened on wood pins.
Ian and Ryan also repainted the sign with a weatherproof "fireside" reddish-brown to make it stand out to drivers, and painted the white lettering and gold trim around the outside. Last week, Ian touched up the maritime-based logo atop of the sign with bright colors that pop out to passing drivers.
Ian said he is also contacting various service groups that had insignia on the sign, such as the Lions Club, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Sutter Delta Medical Center, to see whether they want to keep their logos up.
Part of the twins' goal is to show, as Ian puts it, that "we are not handicapped, but handi-capable."
"Disabled just means you're different, and different people can make a difference," he said.
Susan Miller, a project manager for the Highway 4 project with the Contra Costa Transportation Authority, said this is the first time she can recall community members stepping up to keep a piece of history.
"It's very heartwarming," Miller said. "Obviously, they are proud of their community and the improvements that are coming. They want it to be very clear that drivers know they are entering Antioch."
Antioch City Manager Jim Jakel said the twins' effort with the sign embodies "a spirit of volunteerism." Both boys, who will be seniors at Antioch High next fall, have Asperger syndrome.
Its symptoms can vary from not understanding humor or the back-and-forth of a conversation, to an obsessive interest in specific items. In Ian and Ryan Valenta's case, the teens mostly show a strong reaction to light, sounds, textures or other stimuli such as the feel of nylon that others might not even notice.
That obsessiveness showed slightly during the project, as the boys would get upset if the paint ran a little bit, if they made a minor mistake or the meeting of a deadline weighed on them, Chris Valenta said.
"But that's part of the point of the Eagle Scout project, to help them learn to overcome when things don't go according to plan," he said.
"They've come a long way. When you have children with autistic tendencies, you have to push them all the time to get them to do things. If they are afraid of getting dirty, get their hands dirty, but you have to go at it lightly in steps."
The Valentas plan on putting the sign back up in the next couple of weeks, though the exact placement and materials to be used to secure it haven't been determined.
Miller said her agency will do what it can to help get the sign back up.
Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.