Williamsburg students give back through Day of Service

Jason Weidel, Cathy Mock and Cyrus Simmons spread mulch at the three crosses and Williamsburg sign during Williamsburg High School’s Day of Service. Mirror photo by Rachel Foor

WILLIAMSBURG — Approximately 140 Williamsburg High School students braved the chilly, damp weather Tuesday afternoon to help improve their community largely through landscaping and collecting litter.

During the school’s first Day of Service, the students worked alongside their teachers and other volunteers in teams throughout the town to try to complete as many projects as possible before winter comes.

“We wanted to do this last year, but COVID squashed everything,” High School Principal Mike Jones said. “It’s taken some time, but we’ve been working all summer to come up with this.”

The students had a number of different community service activities from which to choose, including lifting and stacking pre-cut firewood at the Lower Trail trailhead for Williamsburg residents in need; planting native trees, shrubs and wildflowers along Lower Trail while pulling up invasive plants and clearing fallen branches; removing sod, raking out weed material, and digging and seeding a wildflower strip on Lower Trail just past the substation.

In addition, students could make blankets at the Zion Lutheran Church to send abroad; paint the snowmen that decorate the town at the Women’s Civic Club; paint bleachers at the farm show area; paint holiday windows at selected local businesses; and weed and garden at various locations.

Penn State senior Elliott Kline helps Williamsburg High School students construct a topographical model of Williamsburg during the school’s Day of Service. Mirror photo by Rachel Foor

Although most of the activities were within walking distance of the school, some students took a bus to Mount Etna to plant native trees and shrubs while pulling out invasive plants. They also cleared fallen branches from the area and planted wildflowers to help pollinators in the spring.

“I think it’s great,” Williamsburg Mayor Ted Hyle said. “I’m just glad they’re out and about, it helps the community a lot.”

Before they were sent to their chosen locations, the students were provided with all necessary equipment and were given a safety talk by Greg Williams, a local volunteer who helps maintain the Lower Trail.

“All of these loppers can cut a finger off,” Williams warned the students. “I want you to go home with 10 fingers and 10 toes. All of them.”

Students were told to wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, sturdy shoes and work gloves to protect against mosquitoes, ticks, poison ivy and stinging nettle.

Ryan Blattenberger, a volunteer with BluAcres, helps seventh and eighth graders spread sod for a wildflower strip by Lower Trail during Williamsburg High School's Day of Service Mirror photo by Rachel Foor

While the high school students mainly worked outside, those in seventh and eighth grades went to the library to construct a 1:64 scale topographic model of Williamsburg, the river and Lower Trail by gluing together laser-cut cardboard slabs. The pieces of the model were provided by Penn State professor Alec Spangler, who teaches landscape architecture, and one of his students, Elliott Kline.

According to Spangler, the model is a part of a grant project that he received from the Hamer Center for Community Design by proposing an open-ended project to do a planning study with the Lower Trail and the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River.

“I wanted to build a model as a planning tool anyway, which is something that I’ve done in the past as a landscape architect, and I thought that it would be fun and interesting and a good way to connect with the community to have school students do it,” Spangler said.

He hopes the model will help the community have conversations about what they want for the Lower Trail, the river and other parts of the town.

“I want it to be a tool for the community,” Spangler said. “It would be great if it had a permanent home and could be used in community meetings.”

The model resembled a large 3-D puzzle. Students helping put it together were spread across several tables in the small library, with some sitting or laying on the floor, to figure out which pieces went where.

“It’s really hard, you just gotta go slow and steady and make sure you have everything lined up right,” said Samantha Rispoli, a seventh grader at Williamsburg. “But other than that it’s really fun.”

According to Jones, the purpose of the Day of Service was to connect the students with their community and have them think of more than just themselves.

“You’re building service leaders, you’re not just building kids that can lead but kids that can lead in their own communities,” Jones said.

Another bonus is having the students and people in the community get to know one another, Jones said.

“It gives the adults the opportunity to see the kids in a different way instead of ‘these dang high school kids,'” Jones said. “Now you have names, and it’s about being able to make contacts.”

The Williamsburg Community School Board was very supportive of the Day of Service and are hoping to not only hold another in the spring, but to make it a bi-annual event, Jones said.

“This is education right here,” Jones said. “It’s not just what happens in the classroom.”

The Day of Service has further solidified the Williamsburg community’s desire to become a trail town, as many of the community service activities took place along the Lower Trail.

“I think one of the reasons why there’s interest in the trail now is because people are noticing other communities in central Pennsylvania that have benefited greatly from trails, especially some of the towns along the Great Allegheny Passage,”

Spangler said.

According to Dave Cadle, a Williamsburg resident and longtime volunteer that helps maintain Lower Trail, before COVID-19 between 70,000 and 80,000 people used the trail each year.

That number has doubled in the last year, Cadle said.

“Honestly, it’s a lifeline,” Cadle said.


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