GRAY — Fifteen students from Gray-New Gloucester High School “gained a tremendous amount of confidence” through their work this month at Libby Hill Trails.
At a work day Nov. 1, the ExCEL students worked for three hours — cut short by rain — to build a bridge, install signs and create a portion of new trail.
The ExCEL program (Expanding Choices for Each Learner) has existed in some form at the high school for 20 years. It is an alternative program for students who are at risk of not graduating for a variety of reasons, said Janet Clemons, who teaches the program with Gail Myshrall. There are 20 students enrolled.
“Our program really thrives on community service. We like to get the kids out into the community, and the majority of them just love helping and giving back,” Clemons said.
The Libby Hill project resulted from a collaboration between Town Council Vice Chairwoman Sandy Carder, Gray Community Endowment President Carl Holmquist, Recreation Department Facilities Director Dean Bennett and Clemons and Myshrall.
The original plan, Carder said, was for the students to work on the historic Dry Mills Schoolhouse, which has been closed since 2015 due to structural problems. Supplementing the labor reduces the cost of renovations, said Carder, who is the council liaison for the Dry Mills Schoolhouse Committee.
But due to a lack of available contractors, work on the schoolhouse has been delayed until spring. So Carder got in touch with Holmquist about working at Libby Trail.
“I’ve tried to get schools involved for the last two decades but have not had much success. I finally was able to get them to come together and collaborate with us,” Holmquist said.
Bennett also joined the project.
Libby Hill is a public recreation park used for a variety of activities, and ownership of its approximately 200 acres of land is split among the town, the school, the Gray Community Endowment and a private landowner.
Students — led by Carder, Holmquist, Bennett, Clemons and Myshrall — built a wooden bridge on a new outlet trail; walked the trails and affixed new signs at various locations and created 20 feet of a new mountain biking trail by bench cutting into a hillside.
“The students were all excited, and some of them immersed themselves in the work and got right into it,” Bennett said.
Carder said group leaders looked for ways to incorporate lessons into the work. In her group, they discussed “why we had to cut at such an angle to avoid erosion, we thought about what happens when rain hits rocks.”
Holmquist connected the work his group did to future careers. He told them that Community Endowment has enlisted the help of trail diggers, lawyers, contractors and foresters, among other vocations.
“It gives exposure to the kids of what potentially could come of it. There are occupations that are tied to all those different things,” he said.
Holmquist believes the work day was enormously beneficial to the students and would love to work more with the program in the future.
“These kids need to see that there’s vocations and avenues for them, and they definitely gained a tremendous amount of confidence just in the three hours that we worked together,” he explained.
Clemons enjoys getting the students out into the community.
“They’re having fun and yet they’re learning and they’re giving back to the community at the same time. It helps the kids learn about things their community has to offer that they’ve maybe never learned about before and gets them outside and gets them away from the traditional learning that the majority of them struggle with,” she said.
The ExCEL program currently volunteers at the Preble Street Soup Kitchen once a month and participates in a reading buddies program with Memorial Elementary School twice a week. The group has also committed to working on the Dry Mills Schoolhouse in the spring once a contractor has been hired.
Bennett said the Recreation Department is planning to complete more projects with the group in the future.
“Encouraging the kids to get involved in the community and reap the benefits of the end product is important,” he said.
Jane Vaughan can be reached at 780-9103 or at email@example.com.
Janet Clemons, Emma Belanger, Jacob Hemmings and Carl Holmquist construct a bridge over a stream on a new outlet trail.
Jake Ayer, Kasha Sullivan, Drew Hayward, Cam Moore, Gail Myshrall and Jenna Buzzell get to work bench cutting a hillside for a new mountain biking trail.