Triple-digit temperatures subsided and gave a reprieve to the hundreds of volunteers from across the United States July 9 when they arrived to spend a morning at Arlington National Cemetery.
The 16th annual Renewal and Remembrance Volunteer Day of Service is a day set aside each July, drawing hundreds of landscape and lawn care professionals. Adults and children volunteered to enhance the beauty of ANC, mulching, pruning, aerating, planting, liming and cabling trees with lightning and storm protection across more than 150 acres.
Members of PLANET (Professional Landcare Network), an international association of professionals in a variety of lawn and landscape professions, began the day with an official ceremony at ANC, then divided into teams to begin the arduous tasks before the temperature and humidity gained momentum. With the exception of a few isolated projects, most tasks were complete by 11:30 a.m. to avoid uncomfortable working conditions.
Among the 350 volunteers were 45 children, many who have grown up making the annual pilgrimage to volunteer with their parents at the cemetery.
The children gathered around a small garden in section 40, located on Custis Walk. Kelly Wilson, ANC horticulturalist, who wore a t-shirt with a caterpillar print on the front and a butterfly on the back, gave a informative and educational talk about the grasses and plants the group would be planting there.
“This is the milkweed plant,” said Wilson, holding up one of the plastic pots containing the native variety children were preparing to plant in the garden. She told the children the plant was important, then turned around so the children could see the art on the back of her t-shirt, asking them to identify the species of butterfly. Several yelled out their answers, and Wilson praised them, explaining the milkweed they were about to plant attracted the monarch caterpillar.
“I’ve been involved with the PLANET volunteer day since I’ve been here,” said Wilson, who has worked five-and-a-half years at ANC. “We’re getting [the children] involved and teaching them more about native plants and sustainable gardening,” she said. “In addition to the milkweed plant, they’re planting switchgrass, both native plants. It’s a great opportunity for the kids.”
Silvina Klaas traveled from her home in Roswell, Ga., with her Family to volunteer. “It’s my twelfth year coming here and the fourth with the children,” she said.
“It’s special here,” said Klaas’s daughter, Mellie, 5-and-a-half.
“This is where the Soldiers are buried.” Mellie’s brother Teddy, 8, said as he stood by his sister waiting for a turn to place a milkweed plant in the garden. “It makes me feel happy to help the Soldiers. This is like their home, and I’m decorating it,” he said.
“It’s my tenth year coming here,” said Roger Phelps, a Navy veteran who took time from his promotional communications management job in Virginia Beach, Va., to volunteer for the day at ANC.
“It’s an opportunity not only to understand the value of Arlington as a place where heroes are buried, but also to understand the value of plants and what they do for the environment — so the visitors who come here can see life,” he said. “That is something we want our kids to know — that’s the value of what our parents do and our industry does. We can help create these spaces where people can enjoy it. It’s good for the environment and for their psychological well-being. It’s exciting to see the kids learn that.”
Phelps also felt this project instills what it means for young people to commit to public service. “There are all kinds of service. Obviously, there’s military service as well as what [the kids’] parents do, and hopefully what the kids will continue to do,” he said.
“I really want the children to relate to what happens here because it is so sacred and so special,” said Nanette Seven, a volunteer in charge of the children’s program. “As adults, we appreciate it, but to experience this and have kids come here from all over the country and to be a part of it is amazing.”
Seven said this is one of the smaller groups of children participating in the event. “We’ve had upwards of 80 [in the past], and they come from all over the country. A lot of the kids have grandparents buried here, know the history and return year after year,” she said.
For two years, the children have been able to enter an essay contest about the event. Seven explained there is no theme; however, the children write about why ANC is special to them. Two winners are selected to participate in the wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Taking care of the grounds serves as a tribute to the service and sacrifice of those laid to rest within the hallowed grounds of ANC. Since it began 16 years ago, the renewal and remembrance volunteers have contributed labor and materials valued at more than $2 million for the care of this historic landmark.
Seven said it was especially touching to be here this year. “The son of a friend of mine, a 21-year-old Marine, saw what happened on 9/11 and decided he wanted to help protect our country,” she said. “Ultimately he gave his life for our country and will be buried here.”