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Students display work ethic at neighborhood cleanup

St. Mary’s service day underscores desire to give back

The trash bags filled up quickly.

Ty Van Valkenburg and his crew of students from St. Mary's High School worked feverishly picking up trash and trimming grass and weeds from a sidewalk on the corner of Osceola and Grand, a few blocks north of their school in south St. Louis.

Wielding a shovel as he cut and scooped weeds and grass overtaking the sidewalk, Max Todd was almost too busy to talk. The junior managed a quick comment: "It's hard work. But we want to help out any way we can."

St. Mary's canceled classes for the all-school service day cleaning up areas of the neighborhood, but it was anything but a day at the beach for the students. Van Valkenburg, strength coach and public speaking teacher at St. Mary's, set the tone for his group of about 10 students by tackling the clean-up effort with vigor. From time to time he'd point out what needed to be done or he'd give praise.

"Get all the glass in a pile."

"Bring that bin over here, please."

"Good work."

"You're doing a good job."

When told that his crew — wearing purple shirts as part of the O'Shaughnessy Academy group of homeroom students at St. Mary's — was working hard, he said: "That's the plan. Make the most of the day."

Later, Van Valkenburg, a 2007 graduate of St. Mary's who did service work as a student with the football team, reflected on the effort. "If I do my part, they'll follow," he said. "It's a good group of guys. I'm not surprised they're working hard. At St. Mary's we've had a culture of hard-working students, and not just scholastic. It's in our DNA. That's what it means to be a Dragon."

Trey Kirgan manned a long-handled tool that picked up trash. He collected cigarette boxes and butts, broken beer bottles, a syringe and lots of plastic bags and wrappers. "It's nice to get out and help the community," the sophomore said. "Making it look better makes you feel good knowing you've made a difference."

The service day began and ended with prayer services. Included was a lunch of hamburgers and hot dogs for the students.

St. Mary's president Mike England spoke to the students before they consumed a morning snack and gathered their tools. He then helped coordinate things from outside the school building, keeping an eye on his phone. Soon after the students and teachers fanned out in the neighborhood, England received a voice message from a resident of the Boulevard Heights neighborhood thanking the students for their work and calling it "a sight for sore eyes."

The clean-up project is in its third year, and streamlined organization allowed the school this year to expand the territory that is covered. "It's a tremendous thing for St. Mary's and a tremendous thing for our neighborhood," England said.

England explained the clean-up is an example of a lesson that "life is not just about you. It's about what you can bring to others. Today's about giving back. Our young men get it. They're out here working so hard because this means something to them."

It didn't take Van Valkenburg's crew long to get one side of the street corner looking spotless. "Some of you grab these bags," he said. "We're going to start to move on." 

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