VALPARAISO — Nearly 150 high school students from Lake and Porter counties gathered Saturday at Taltree Arboretum & Gardens for the United Way Youth Day of Caring.
The event was part of United Way of Porter County’s Power of Youth initiative, which encourages teens to make a habit of philanthropy and community service.
Among the 13 schools participating were Andrean, Lake Central and Hobart high schools and Lighthouse College Prep Academy in Lake County, and Valparaiso, Wheeler and Morgan Township high schools in Porter County.
Teens chose from 10 projects that involved trail work, sign cleaning, reforestation, water sealing benches, cleaning fire pits, raking, painting and spreading wood chips throughout some of the 330 acres of the park.
Lauri Keagle, Taltree marketing manager, said the nonprofit park is grateful for the volunteer labor.
“Whenever we can get boots on the ground and fingers in the dirt, it saves us staffing and manpower,” Keagle said. “They are incredibly valuable to us and we can’t thank them enough.”
Ashton Anekwe, 17, a senior at Merrillville High, had fun at the event.
“It feels really good to help out the community,” said Anekwe.
The Merrillville students represented their high school’s STAND club, an acronym for Socially Together and Naturally Diverse.
“We go out and do community service,” said Ashley Mendez, 18. “This is a really good project to help clean up the park.”
Twins Abby and Kaitlyn Steele and Sam Stazinski were among a group of Valparaiso High School classmates who raked leaves.
“I like how much we changed things in only two hours,” said Stazinski, 14.
After their two-hour work projects, the students were treated to hot dogs and chips and music by local rock band, The Concept.
A group of students from Neighbors’ New Vistas High in Portage had an eye-opening experience at the event.
“I never knew this place existed,” said Angel Velazquez, 19.
Classmate Alujorna Winfield enjoyed seeing the animals of the Adventure Garden, including rabbits, goats, turkeys and chickens.
“It’s good to see a place dedicated to Indiana nature,” said Christian Alex, 18.