ANTIOCH -- Brittney Gougeon was frustrated. Someone had vandalized her friend's car on Christmas Day. A would-be burglar entered her Antioch home before Gougeon's two dogs scared away the intruder.
But it was the nearby fatal shooting of a drug peddler during an attempted robbery in December 2010 -- the 13th homicide that year -- that was the tipping point.
Aware that violent crime was on the rise, Gougeon created a Facebook page she named Take Back Antioch and invited residents not only to share how crime and blight were affecting their neighborhood but to suggest solutions.
Within two weeks of the homicide, more than 400 people had expressed their appreciation of the site by clicking the "Like" button, and a group of residents who wanted to help turn around the situation had started to form.
The magnitude of the response took Gougeon by surprise.
"I just wasn't expecting that many people to be interested in my little idea," she said. "I was hoping that maybe I'd meet a few people and we could work together to reduce crime."
Nearly two years later, that little idea not only has garnered upward of 4,200 "Likes" but is on its way to becoming a nonprofit organization.
Gougeon followed up the Facebook page with a website listing the phone numbers to call about problems that included abandoned shopping carts, overgrown weeds and illegal dumping.
The Police Department's nonemergency line also is posted for those who want to report a suspicious activity or crime that's already occurred along with an explanation of when and how to text an anonymous tip.
But Take Back Antioch is considerably more than an online directory: Gougeon's Facebook page has attracted volunteers who have used part of the $13,978 the group has received in donations since its inception to help two vandalized schools as well as contribute $8,631 toward the replacement of a park's play structure damaged by fire.
The site also has generated manpower for the city's graffiti and litter abatement efforts, and encouraged residents to get involved in Neighborhood Watch groups.
The approximately 20 individuals who comprise Take Back Antioch's core of volunteers have held "positive loitering parties" at Antioch's skate park and a strip mall, socializing with one another to deter transients and taggers.
Supporters urge others to keep tabs on what their elected officials are doing to improve the quality of life by bringing neighborhood problems to their attention at City Council meetings.
Antioch police Chief Allan Cantando said Take Back Antioch's shows of unity have had the biggest effect on the city.
"It's a large group of people coming together," he said. "When you have 4,000-plus friends on your Facebook (page) and you say, 'This crime issue is important to us,' you're going to get heard."
In some respects, Gougeon doesn't fit the profile of someone whose efforts to improve Antioch have captured the attention of thousands of residents.
The Georgia native is 25, and although she exudes the confidence of someone considerably older, both Gougeon and those who know her say she's actually reserved.
"You wouldn't expect this person to be the founder of TBA -- she'll be the first one to tell you she hates public speaking. But she's eloquent," said Janet Pagano, one of Take Back Antioch's board members. "It's amazing that she wants to make change in her community. That's something that older people do, you know what I mean?"
Pagano's story is an example of Gougeon's ability to motivate: When she first read about the startup group, the 17-year resident and her family were feeling so battered by Antioch's housing market that they were considering pulling up stakes.
"Everything felt helpless, pointless. I was done with Antioch," said Pagano, 46.
But her attitude began to change after she discovered Take Back Antioch's Facebook page and noticed Gougeon's insistence that commenters focus on finding solutions to the problems they saw instead of simply griping.
Pagano felt so uplifted after meeting Gougeon that she overcame her shyness to start a Neighborhood Watch group last year. She began knocking on doors, and 40 of the 75 residents she contacted ultimately joined.
"Brittney gave me the tools I needed to take that first step," Pagano said.
Gougeon is big on encouraging others to help themselves instead of relying solely on understaffed city departments.
One way people can take that initiative is to adopt a "community watch mentality," Gougeon says; by serving as the eyes and ears of a police force that's dwindled to 88 officers, residents extend its reach in this city of 104,000.
She does her part by calling dispatchers whenever she sees something amiss using the nonemergency number she has programmed into her cellphone.
Residents have coalesced around the Facebook page to help each other push back even as Antioch's violent and property crime statistics reflect a nearly 65 percent increase since 2008. People post photos of stolen vehicles and missing persons, and instead of simply bemoaning the gutting of Antioch's code enforcement department three years ago, they upload shots of trash-strewed trails and invite others to join them in cleaning up the mess.
"It's empowering so many people," said Beverly Knight, 55, who has made it her daily mission to pick up litter since getting involved with Take Back Antioch last year.
Once feeling isolated and impotent, Knight credits Gougeon's group with helping her find her voice.
"They are my people -- they have the same concerns I have -- and I knew I wasn't alone anymore," she said.
Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.
Find out how to join your neighbors in pushing back against crime and blight by contacting Take Back Antioch through www.facebook.com/TakeBackAntioch or by emailing email@example.com.
Hometown: Peachtree City, Ga.
Claim to fame: Founded a grass-roots group dedicated to fighting crime and blight.
Quote: "You're either part of the solution or part of the problem."
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