VALPARAISO — Students from rival schools who would typically root for their own teams came together Saturday with rakes, working gloves and pruning shears. As part of a United Way effort, high schoolers combined their talents to spruce up a nature area.

Taltree Arboretum & Gardens was the scene for the annual Youth Day of Caring, sponsored by United Way of Porter County. Eighty students and teachers from nine high schools in Porter and Lake counties spent Earth Day in the fields and forests of the 330-acre tract.

“The whole idea is to use volunteering to bring the community together,” said Mackenna Schon, director of volunteerism and engagement for United Way of Porter County. “As high school students, they’re used to competing against other schools. Today we want them to work together.”

Chad Cronin, grounds and facilities manager at Taltree, added, “With 330 acres, there’s a lot to clean up. As a nonprofit organization, we don’t have a very large staff. With these volunteers, we can make a big difference and get a big jump on the season.”

Several members of the National Honor Society at Kouts High School were armed with rakes, cleaning a pavilion area that later that day would host a wedding ceremony. Alyssa Millen, 18, a Kouts senior and NHS chapter president, noted, “We always do things like this — anything to give back to the community. It’s a way for us to outreach.”

Amanda Gardin, 16, a junior at Kouts High School, was removing invasive plants. “We just like volunteering,” she said. “It’s Earth Day, so it’s good to do something earthy.”

Tamar Trice, 16, a junior at Lighthouse Academy in Gary, was trimming thorn bushes. “It’s nice to be outdoors and spend Earth Day with classmates,” Trice said.

Sophomore Tyler Domingo, 16, was the lone Lake Central representative. “It’s nice that we can do something for the Earth,” he said. “I also came to improve my social skills and leadership skills.”

Teachers also got into the act. Valerie Hines, a math teacher at New Vista High School in Portage, brought four students and helped move earth for planting a shade tree.

"These students need to wake up and understand the fragile relationship between nature and man,” Hines said.

For a first-time project for the charter school, Hines said, “Today was rewarding — very rewarding.”

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