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Milton Pope eighth-graders volunteer at Illini State Park – Shaw Local

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Milton Pope eighth-graders learned the value of volunteering to the community on Wednesday, just one day before the class graduated and headed to five different high schools.

Nineteen students participated in the second annual service day at Illini State Park in Marseilles. In 2023, Sarah Farnsworth, the FFA teacher at Milton Pope, led a group of students who helped spread mulch around the oak trees at the Fallen Soldiers Tree Memorial in Illini State Park. This year, students helped clear brush from a closed area of ​​the park in preparation for reopening it and notably helped plant sunflowers and red millet west of the Illinois River Bridge over the park.

Milton Pope collaborated on the effort with La Salle County Pheasants Forever, Laborers Local Union 393 and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Students learned Wednesday that they were “swampers,” clearing branches and brush after volunteers from the Laborers Local Union and IDNR cut down invasive trees to reopen an area of ​​the park that was now closed and overgrown with vegetation.

Another group of students cleared rocks from a freshly tilled plot and spread sunflower and millet seeds to provide food and habitat for songbirds and other wildlife.

“We are always happy when we can involve youth in conservation projects,” says John Garrity, habitat chairman of La Salle County Pheasants Forever.

Eighth-grader Branson Hughes said he enjoys being outside.

“We're doing something good for other people, not just for ourselves,” Hughes said. “And we can work together.”

Sophia Swift, another eighth-grader, noted that many volunteers are needed to make a difference at the park.

“It was a bit like cleaning your bedroom,” Swift said. “We started out with a lot of clutter, but at the end you see how tidy everything is and you feel better.”

Farnsworth said the service day falls between a day reserved for the play and the school's graduation ceremony, so returning to the classroom makes little sense.

“This is a way to get the kids outside,” she said. “Many of them have never been to Illini State Park, and it's right in their backyard. They also get to experience a lot of different outdoor tasks, learn how to work safely outside and how to identify plants like poison ivy.”

Eighth-grader Brady Fort was one of the students learning new things. He said he didn't know the black locust trees weren't native to the park and had never seen a chainsaw in use. His classmate Josie Mitchell said the students made memories Wednesday by being with friends and doing community service.

“It’s so desolate and peaceful here,” said eighth-grader Brody Schutter of his work at the riverfront park.

David Raikes of Local 393 coordinated the collaboration between the various organizations on Wednesday. He said he was pleased to see the volunteers making progress in the park, which is an important place for Marseille.

“A lot of people walk through here and thanks to the work of these students, those people are able to see songbirds and deer,” Raikes said. “The students can come back themselves and know that they played a part in it.”

Farnsworth said she looks forward to instilling those values.

“We hope this becomes a new tradition,” she said. “The students really benefit from being here.”

The eighth-grader from Milton Pope Elementary School in rural Marseilles poses for a class photo during their service day at Illini State Park on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. The students are (front, from left) Josie Mitchell, Jayden Spencer, Bailey Witte, Karleigh Davis, Kendall Read, Sophia Swift, Zoey Angelico, Maci Malone, Chloe Roberts, Emma Peterson, Lylah Hebel, (back) Brody Schutter, Everett Liberg, Brady Fort, Hayden Robertson, Zach Green, Caden Perry, Branson Hughes and Liam Muffler.
Sophia Swift, an eighth-grader at Milton Pope School, scatters seeds in a sunflower and red millet field at Illini State Park on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.