During that tenure, while presiding over several monumental failures, I discovered that a successful youth service project needs three key elements addressed:
1. Every youth needs a clear assignment
2. Every youth needs the tool that will make him effective in that assignment.
3. Every youth needs a supervisor who can guide, cheerlead, and, if necessary, give additional tasks to keep youth meaningfully occupied.
Our service project was in a cemetery as well, though it was still used by the folks on Lummi Island, a five minute ferry ride from the dock on Gooseberry Point in Northwest Washington. Keeping the three key elements in mind, my counselors and I visited the island and talked to the volunteer cemetery coordinator several weeks before the end-of-May date we had calendared. We walked through the headstones and took note of the things that needed to be done. We organized three crew bosses: one for cutting back encroaching bushes and blackberry brambles, another for scrubbing moss off of old headstones, and a third for carrying fill dirt across the cemetery to fill in sunken graves. When we selected the crew bosses, we told them how many youth they would have and asked them to make sure they had enough tools so everyone could participate. We followed up (read: nagged) several times, underlining how important it was for everyone to have a tool.
Finally, all was organized. There was nothing left to do but check the weather report and hope for good weather. The sun didn’t disappoint us, and we gathered at the ferry dock at the appointed hour. The cemetery was near enough that we could walk from the ferry dock up to the cemetery. Shouldering shovels, rakes, pushing wheelbarrows, and armed with stiff-bristled brushes, we looked like a rowdy Labor Day parade as we marched up the hill. Everyone went to work with a will, and because the crew bosses had good preparation, they were able to see that everyone had something to do that was a meaningful contribution.
It wasn’t all fun. Lots of it wasn’t easy. Crouching to scrub moss may be neat on the first headstone, but by the fifteenth, it gets boring and knees start to get tender. The blackberry patrol drew blood in the line of duty. But, in about two hours, we had accomplished everything on the list, and people were looking around and smiling at how good things looked.
One of our leaders who lived on the island had us stack our tools, and he led us around to some of the gravestones to tell us the stories the people lying there. Everyone was very quiet as they stood next to the white marble marker indicating a Civil War soldier. And they listened solemnly to the story of the little girl, daughter of the cannery supervisor, who had drowned in the pond behind the cannery in the 1920’s. The family had left the island, but the locals adopted the grave and make sure there are flowers there every Memorial Day. I looked at the young women I had seen scrubbing off the headstone earlier and saw tears in their eyes.
The march down the hill to the returning ferry wasn’t so rowdy, though it certainly wasn’t somber. The kids smiled a lot, and they hugged each other as they parted at the ferry landing. You could tell that they felt good about what they had been doing for those few hours.
I felt good, too, and I wonder if the memory of that day lingers in the minds of the youth as it does in mine, because I’m smiling as I write about it today, fifteen years later.