Mackenzie Hopkins and Harry Ryan are on spring break this week, but they were still working diligently Monday morning.
Brick by brick, the Monadnock Regional High School seniors unearthed the cobbles lining the plant beds at Ashuelot River Park in Keene, cleaned them, laid down new stone dust, and replaced them. When they were done, the bricks — which bear the names of area residents who financially supported the park’s creation in 1996, and had sunken down over the years — looked almost new.
Last year, Hopkins and Ryan were among the roughly 45 students from Monadnock and Keene High School’s Interact clubs — the youth branch of Rotary International — who traveled to Puerto Rico, where they repaired hurricane-damaged homes as part of the clubs’ annual joint service trip. In years past, the clubs have traveled to countries including Nicaragua and El Salvador, where they have also performed service projects.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the clubs to cancel the trip and look for a local project. They found it at Ashuelot River Park, where close to 140 students from the two groups will work through Wednesday beautifying the grounds in various ways, including planting several new bushes, weeding all of the flower beds and constructing a new pergola to take the place of the gazebo that had been near the park’s entrance since its inception 25 years ago.
“It sucks that we didn’t get to go to Puerto Rico this year, but I was really excited to get to do this, because it’s actually in our community, and people will get to see it and enjoy it,” Hopkins, a Troy resident, said.
Ryan, who lives in Swanzey, added that the clubs — which are run by students and overseen by advisers who are members of Keene’s two Rotary chapters — have worked together before on smaller area service projects, like volunteering at the Clarence DeMar Marathon, but nothing of this magnitude locally.
“It’s important to give back to the community,” he said. “We’ve done that in a lot of ways, but we’ve never really done a major project in Keene.”
While Hopkins and Ryan were restoring the commemorative bricks Monday, about six members of Keene’s Interact club were busy putting up the frame of the pergola, a freestanding wooden structure that will provide a shaded seating area in the park. They worked with staff members volunteering their time from Bensonwood, the Walpole-based building company that designed the pergola, which will measure roughly 16 by 25 feet and stand about 15 feet tall.
“It’s a very public space in Keene, and it’s close to a lot of things that people do frequently,” Penelope Garcia, a Keene High sophomore who was working on the pergola, said. “So, it’s a commonly used space, and it’s a good thing to be fixing it up.”
Andy Bohannon, the city’s parks, recreation and facilities director, who has worked with the clubs to plan the project over the past six months, said the pergola, which is open at its base, will offer better sightlines than the gazebo did from the park area to the trails that run along the river.
“Since we’ve removed it, and it’s been gone for about three weeks, we’ve actually had really positive comments from the public, just saying it looks so much better now,” Bohannon said. “And when we explained what the project was going to be for the pergola, everybody just really loved it. So we’re excited to see that the community has really embraced the pergola.”
The Interact clubs raised $5,000 each to pay for the pergola, with the city chipping in an additional $5,000. Bohannon added that all of the work this week fits in with the Ashuelot River Park Advisory Board’s climate resilient master plan, which the City Council adopted last June. Among other actions, that plan calls for more thorough weeding of the park’s plant beds to help remove invasive species, and introducing only native plant varieties to the park, both of which the groups are doing this week.
“It’s things that we’d like to do, and don’t necessarily always get to do. And it takes mass effort like this to make it all happen,” Bohannon said, adding that volunteers from the city-appointed park advisory board as well as the nonprofit Friends of Ashuelot River Park are helping with the work this week, too.
This partnership took shape last fall, when the clubs’ advisers saw that the pandemic likely would cancel the trip, and reached out to Bohannon to see what they could do within the city.
“It was pretty clear when the schools went back and weren’t in-person, and as the COVID rate continued to rise, especially as the holidays came on and people came back indoors” that a return to Puerto Rico wouldn’t be possible this year, Marion Lefrancois, an adviser for the Monadnock club, said.
In addition to being a much bigger local service project than the clubs normally do, this year’s is more inclusive, too, because they don’t have to deal with the logistics of overseas travel. The service trip normally caps the number of students at about 45, Lefrancois said.
“But that’s because you’ve got to fly, and it’s expensive,” she said. “With this, we could have everybody. So we wanted something that was big, and also something that would have kind of a lasting impact.”
So, Keene Interact adviser Ranae O’Neil said, the Ashuelot River Park project presented a perfect alternative, and provided a pleasant side effect of the public health crisis.
“With not being able to go internationally, we’ve often had people ask about us doing something here, and it really just kind of opened it up this year with COVID,” she said. “If you want to look at something good about COVID, I think it’s that we are able to do something that’s a bigger project here in our own community, and that’s going to be lasting and help people.”