Andy Ladner and his veterans responded to a request for help to build park benches as part of a youth group’s service project to enhance Garner’s Veterans Memorial. The turnout surprised him.
“We had no idea how many people would be here. I thought like 20 kids would show up,” said Ladner, the executive director of U.S. Veterans Corps, an organization that undertakes a variety of projects to help wounded veterans.
Instead of 20, hundreds of youths from Mormon congregations across southern Wake County converged on the memorial at Lake Benson Park Friday to spruce up the site as part of a series of service projects in Garner.
The most visible project in Garner will be the landscaping, guided by Jason Nietschmann, a member of the church and owner of Westlake Landscaping. Veterans Memorial Committee member Faye Gardner said the construction of the memorial, which was dedicated in May 2013, had left the grass around the monument in bad shape.
“It kind of bugged me that we had this beautiful memorial and it was overgrown around it,” Nietschmann said, noting the work was being done two weeks in advance of Garner’s annual July 3 celebration. “People are drawn to a well manicured space.”
Hunter Tippletts works for Nietschmann and is also in the youth group, so he was among those hard at work, laying dirt on the cleared site to level it before the sod went down.
Tippletts, who just graduated after being home schooled and will take online classes in hope of going to Brigham Young University-Idaho, has a veteran father. He found working on the memorial particularly meaningful.
“It’s a really neat experience. I love working on memorials,” Tippetts said. “We actually traveled the East Coast visiting memorials. It’s really special.”
Another volunteer, Hunter Nugent, plans to enter basic training for the Marine Corps after finishing high school next year. In the afternoon, he said it was good to see the hard work pay off. In a matter of hours, the empty, unleveled dirt covering thousands of square feet around the memorial had become a flat, verdant lawn with flowers and other plants sprouting up from new beds of fresh, dark brown mulch.
“We want it to look good. It represents the history of what veterans have done for this country,” Nugent said.
Some of the veterans the memorial aims to honor toiled alongside the landscapers. U.S. Veterans Corps members helped build new benches and rip apart old picnic tables to install new wood on the old metal supports.
One included Ollie Hughes, a staff sergeant who lost his left leg during his second tour of Afghanistan in 2011. Another volunteer, Joe Anysz, served in Vietnam. He said he never really showed his pride in his service until a few years ago when he joined USVC, largely a product of the frequent indifferent-to-hostile reception of Vietnam veterans after that unpopular war.
Steve Bodhaine, the head of 12 congregations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in southern Wake County, including Garner’s chapter, said it gave the kids a chance to see what being a patriot really meant.
“It’s great seeing these kids working side by side with these vets,” Bodhaine said. “It really helps these kids grow and get a different perspective.”
The town partnered with the group, providing some supplies and equipment, as well as a share of the materials. Some of the other materials were donated.
The efforts of LDS in Garner Friday extend beyond landscaping the memorial. About 200 teenage volunteers and 100 adult volunteers contributed to a variety of projects across the area, according to church member and spokesman David Creech. (His wife Kristen helped organize the event.)
After congregating at Lake Benson Park and hearing a speech from Mayor Ronnie Williams, many stayed near the park while others branched out.
Some trimmed the trails at White Deer Park across the street. Others repainted the deer’s house there. Some helped stock shelves at food pantries. And many scattered to more than a dozen homes, most belonging to elderly Meals on Wheels recipients. At the homes they did everything from yard work to painting to clearing drainage ditches to removing siding.
Some also helped alongside volunteers from Garner Grows and Missio Dei Church of Clayton last weekend on a number of service projects at the Garner Grows Community Farm Garden.