A teaching moment: Students, volunteers get dirty while learning about town’s heritage

A.J. Barrick, 12, of Mount Jackson, uses a sponge and dishwashing liquid to clean a headstone in the cemetery outside Union Church in Mount Jackson. Summer school students from North Fork Middle School pitched in to clean up the town cemetery on Tuesday. Rich Cooley/Daily

MOUNT JACKSON – Cemeteries aren’t necessarily where most kids like to spend their free time, especially during summer break, but a group of local students and volunteers were seen working among the weathered headstones and overgrowth at Mount Jackson’s Union Church on Tuesday. The clean-up is part of a new town beautification initiative.

John Borr, the owner of Curtain Call Cafe, said when tourists stop by for a cup of coffee one of the first things they notice is the Union Church across the street.

The landmark is known for etchings on the walls dating back to the Civil War along with housing some of the oldest headstones in the area.

“A lot of the natives frequent the coffee shop where we talk about the history of the town,” Borr said. “In conversation, we noticed that the church was being neglected because people don’t always have the time to do the necessary clean-ups and continued maintenance.”

To rectify this, Borr began a self-proclaimed “hometown clean-up” initiative. Borr said he hopes to get the town’s support to continue the program. 

Taylor Brock, 13, left, of New Market, and Alvaro Tapia, 12, right, of Mount Jackson, use a broom to clean a large stone on Tuesday. Rich Cooley/Daily

“When the teachers of these seventh- and eighth-graders contacted me looking for a summer project that would get them out of the classroom, I have to admit I was pleased,” Borr said. “It’s a great opportunity for kids in our local community to participate in cleaning up the church because it’s a teaching moment. They get to learn about their community while providing an important and rewarding service.”

Carter Fleming, 14, of New Market was in charge of painting the fence gray while fellow students Kyla Ross, 12, of New Market, and Gabriel Starkey, 13, of Mount Jackson, were scrubbing the weathered headstones.

Roughly 15 students participated while adult volunteers came and went. 

Rebecca Gleska, a ninth grade teacher at Stonewall Jackson High School, said the purpose behind getting the kids out of the classroom was to provide a hands-on teachable moment while allowing them to enjoy some summer sunshine.

“I think especially with middle-schoolers it’s important for them to realize they’re part of a bigger community,” Gleska said. “And if they can help with any type community beautification like this, that invests them with their community. Plus, for many of them, they’re going to remember this for the rest of their lives.”

Gabriel Starkey, 13, of Mount Jackson, brushes the edge of a stone. Rich Cooley/Daily

Marie Olsen, a 10th-grade teacher at Stonewall Jackson High School, said for many of the students participating in Tuesday’s clean-up, the community project is right in their backyard.

“This morning I had a student come up to me and tell me that she found out that her grandfather had fought in World War II,” Olsen said. “The kids are going home and sharing what they’re learning with their families. To see this come full-circle is pretty great.”

Monday’s clean-up was postponed due to the rain, but students were given an opportunity to reflect in the classroom on what they hoped to learn when the clean-up was complete.

Gabriel Starkley said the classroom exercise allowed him to consider what his country means to him.

“When I saw the memorial sign, with all those names on it, I realized how much people have given up for us to be here,” Gabriel said. “By participating in today’s project, I’m honoring those that sacrificed themselves for our country.”

Kyla Ross, 12, of New Market, wipes down a stone. Rich Cooley/Daily

Gabriel said he hoped passerby notice him and his classmates working at the church and that they will consider taking the time to honor their country in one way or another.

Jonathan Starkey, 19 of Mount Jackson, attended Tuesday’s clean-up with his little brother Gabriel to simply give back to his community. Jonathan Starkey said he hoped his brother learned what sacrifice truly means to his country.

Kyla Ross said her ultimate goal from the clean-up was to help the environment and bring awareness to the community on how important it is to continue to maintain it.

“My mom always said, ‘if you do something nice, you get something out of it,'” Ross said. “I think it’s important to take the time to care for our environment and planet. It’s about respect.”

At the end of the week-long project, Gleske and Olsen said they hope their students have a sense of pride for their hard work.

“I hope they walk away with the feeling of being proud that they did something within their community,” Gleske said. “When they walk down the street or drive by, they can point to their parents or friends and say “I helped make that beautiful or ‘I helped build up something in my community.'”

To bring the project full circle, Gleske said each student would research a name on the town’s memorial sign to create a brochure for visitors to pick up on their tours of the church and town.

“I’m not sure how well it will turn out, but the main thing is the kids are loving it and having a really exciting time learning about their community and local history,” Gleske said.