ALBANY PARK — It sounds like the set-up for a joke — Batman, Captain America and a ninja walk up to an abandoned house.
Except there's no punchline. Just a chorus of "Trick or treat!" and an exchange of candy.
Kay Cleaves, organizer of Operation Porchlight, led a group of volunteers stationed at vacant houses in Albany Park on Halloween, passing out Twizzlers and Milk Duds and guarding the homes against potential tricksters.
"The idea hit me about a year ago, on Halloween in fact," said Cleaves, who spent the holiday perched on a stoop on North Avers Avenue. "It seems like an obvious no-brainer."
Her concept was to pair apartment and condo dwellers, who typically greet few if any trick-or-treaters, with empty homes that are often sitting ducks for vandals on Halloween.
"I haven't done this since I lived back at my folks' house," said Jon Hoferle, aka Sherlock Holmes, who joined the effort and manned a porch on North Keystone Avenue, attending to a parade of princesses and zombies. "I live in a multi-unit building so I don't get trick-or-treaters and if I do, I don't answer the buzzer."
His partner in candy (Cleaves teamed up two volunteers at each house), Jessica Bouboulis, grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and recalled racing to the hundreds of homes in her subdivision on Halloween. She now lives just off Lawrence Avenue, where throngs of costumed children and their parents ran not from house to house but business to business in search of sweets.
"I see how the businesses take the place of houses, which seems backwards," she said. "I think it might be a safety thing."
That's precisely why Cleaves, both an Albany Park resident and a real estate agent, dreamed up Operation Porchlight. "I want to make sure kids in the neighborhood are safe and the houses are safe."
Based on a search of the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) for foreclosed properties, Cleaves initially identified 24 such homes in Albany Park. She quickly discovered that approaching banks for permission to camp out on porches was a fool's errand.
"I'd need to start now for next year," she said.
Undeterred, Cleaves ultimately was able to secure four properties that, for a variety of reasons, are currently unoccupied.
"This kind of thing runs right down through my family," said Cleaves, whose mother is a community organizer. "Volunteerism is a huge part of who I am and how I was brought up."
She discovered that not everyone shares her mindset. Drumming up volunteers proved as challenging as nailing down houses, with many prospective participants put off by Albany Park's location.
"People either think it's a suburb or we're infested with gangs," Cleaves said. "I think every neighborhood in Chicago has its dangers."
In driving around Albany Park seeking out abandoned properties she was pleasantly surprised to discover an abundance of lovely homes.
"It really has brought me more into the neighborhood to see what's out there, who lives here ... it's an interesting way of looking at my neighborhood," Cleaves said.
Twelve pounds of candy, nine volunteers, four houses and one Halloween later, Cleaves can consider the inaugural Operation Porchlight a success and is already making plans for 2013.
"All it takes is someone to say, 'Hey come on everybody.'"