By ANDY KIRKALDY
VERGENNES — Last week dozens of gangs of teenagers, more than 300 boys and girls in all, roamed throughout Vergennes, Ferrisburgh, Addison, Panton and Waltham.
They were armed — with mops, rakes, paint brushes and sponges — and left in their wake a trail of gleaming windows, pruned bushes, fresh paint and neat lawns.
All were seniors, sophomores and freshmen at Vergennes Union High School. On the mornings of Oct. 9, 10 and 11, while their peers in the junior class took federally mandated tests that disrupted regular classes, they fanned out to their home towns for community service projects organized and supervised by VUHS teachers.
Despite some initial skepticism, the first-year experiment went well, according to both the beneficiaries of the work — town officials, church committee members and librarians — and VUHS administrators.
One skeptic was Ferrisburgh road foreman John Bull, whose employees oversaw VUHS students as they cleaned up the side of Sand Road and a town beach and rebuilt a fire pit at the beach.
Bull admitted he expected his workers “were going to waste three days” with the students, and was happy to say he was wrong after watching students do what he called “downright dirty manual labor,” like raking seaweed, dragging brush and picking up stones and trash.
“They’ve pitched right in,” Bull said. “It’s been superb, above and beyond what we expected. It’s been a bright spot to see young people in our community like this.”
Bull gave students top marks for the way they conducted themselves, and said he hoped VUHS would hold more community service days in the future.
“Their attitude has just been A-plus,” Bull said. “It’s been a really positive experience.”
Similar reviews came in from all the other towns, from both the private and public sectors. Madelaine Calise, chairwoman of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church’s Rectory Rehab Committee, watched students clean the Main Street church’s rectory on one day, and then the church the next day.
“They were such a great bunch,” Calise said. “They were effective and delightful.”
In Waltham, teens painted the ceiling of the town hall meeting space one day and then cleaned the building the next.
“They did a great job. I’m going to send the school a letter to let them know,” said Town Clerk Mary Kinson. “They just worked great together as a team. We’ll do it again.”
Other projects included, for example, painting and maintenance at the Vergennes recreation area and sewer plant, clearing walking trails in and around the Otter Creek basin, cleaning projects at the Bixby Library and Champlain Valley Christian School, painting and cleaning at the Panton town clerk’s office, and work around VUHS that included cleaning and clearing of its overgrown “outdoor classroom” area and cross-country trail.
Many of the students appreciated the chance to help out, at least according to comments recorded anonymously in a post-service survey, including: “It helps the community a lot, and I think we should do it more often;” “You will get back more than you give;” “It’s good for the community and benefits everyone;” “We were a big help;” “It feels great to help out in a different way;” “We made a difference;” and “It helps us feel good inside.”
VUHS Co-Principal Ed Webbley noted younger students also made visits to Champlain and Castleton State colleges during the three testing mornings.
“We wanted to start getting kids thinking about college a little earlier as part of all this,” Webbley said. “We’re also giving to our kids a little bit.”
There may have been other pluses, too.
Kinson also said the work has more benefit to the students than just the satisfaction of a job well done.
“It’s a great way for kids to do community service and put it on their résumés for college,” she said. “Colleges really look at community service.”
And Addison Selectman Jeff Kauffman — who spoke as a crew trimmed lilac bushes, reset nails on a deck, and washed siding and windows at the town clerk’s office — said the effort also gave towns a positive look at their children.
“This has been great,” Kauffman said. “It’s a great idea to connect the kids with the community … It gives the community a different view of the kids in the school system. They’re hard workers.”
Webbley said students and teachers working together on the projects may have a side benefit.
“The kids were enthusiastic about seeing teachers painting alongside them and driving nails,” Webbley said. “I’ve heard nothing but positives.”
MORE TO COME?
The community service days grew out of a long-standing discussion among the members of the school’s graduation committee, which Webbley said for the past three years has talked about requiring students to complete some form of community service to earn a diploma. Other high schools, including Middlebury and Mount Abraham, already have such a requirement.
At the same time, the school has wrestled with the issue of how to handle the disruption of tests mandated by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, which juniors must take every year and upon which schools are evaluated.
Webbley said teachers and administrators eventually realized the juniors were essentially providing a community service by taking the tests, and the light bulb flashed on.
“We were basically struggling with it, and one of the ideas was, ‘Let’s give everyone community service opportunities,’” he said.
Some at VUHS wondered whether the effort could be put together quickly enough: The decision was made in mid-September to give the idea a trial run in early October. Webbley gave teachers, most notably Lee Shorey and Roberta “Cookie” Steponaitis, credit for finding enough projects to keep students busy for three hours for each of three mornings.
“The logistics became staggering,” Webbley said. “But Cookie Step and Lee Shorey pretty much took over the process and went out in to the community and made all these contacts in a two-week period and did a fantastic job.”
Now that the community feedback has been almost completely favorable and the organizers proved it could be done, Webbley believes that the service days have earned more backing in the building.
“The teachers have been very supportive and had a lot of fun. They seem energized,” he said. “I think we had some converts.”
Webbley believes the move to make community service a graduation requirement will now pick up steam.
“This is going to be the springboard for doing just that,” he said. “This is going to be the proof in the pudding that we can get kids out in the community to do meaningful work.”