EAST CHICAGO | An expansive nature park envisioned by Indiana Harbor students took shape Thursday through the volunteer efforts of an international group of oil workers.
"It's all about giving something back," Corey Webster, a heavy equipment operator at the BP refinery in Whiting, said of the annual community service projects that are a part of the event known as the BP Classic.
Fifth-grade students at Franklin Academy wanted to replace the lawn at their school with a landscaped garden of native plants and found help from the BP volunteers and the Maryland-based Wildlife Habitat Council.
"They're playing a major role in the installation," said Ryan Templeton, coordinator with the Wildlife Habitat Council, as summer school classes ended and successive waves of students joined in the digging and planting of echinacea, coreopsis, rudbeckia, alium, panicum and koleria.
"They're replacing a sustainable dune-and-swale habitat that's mostly gone now," Templeton said. "We hope (the garden) will be established as a teaching tool."
The BP Classic began 26 years ago as a softball challenge between workers at the then-Amoco Whiting refinery and colleagues at a similar facility in Texas City, Texas.
Heavy rains during the competition's third year in Arkansas led to participants filling sand bags to prevent flooding at nearby farms, and the community service component was born, said John Amato, of Texas City, who has been participating for 15 years.
"We enjoy the community service," said Pete Nichols, of Texas City, who retired in 2008 but continues with the annual event as he has for the past 18 years. "It's people that make the company."
"It's like a family reunion," Amato said. "You get together and see everyone's kids growing up."
The volunteers don't just toil in the sun -- today they will golf at Aberdeen Country Club in Valparaiso, and Saturday the two-dozen BP workers will join 200 others in Whiting for a 5-kilometer run to benefit the Whiting Food Pantry and the city's new history museum.
Over the years, the classic has been held in every state in which BP operates a facility, including the province of Alberta in Canada.
The workers pay all of their own expenses and are expected to use valuable vacation days for the time away from their jobs.
"It's a passion for many employees," Webster said. "This is an outstanding project for us and for the students."