More than a dozen students from Willmar's Area Learning Center volunteered to spend their school day Wednesday planting and clearing brush for a local nonprofit arts organization.
At the end of the day, they were hot, tired and dirty, but they were still smiling. Some told ALC art teacher Monica Villars that they had never worked that hard.
The community service project took place at DEMO Inc. Villars is a cofounder and board member of DEMO. The students' work resulted in a vegetable garden and improvements at DEMO's home in the historic former Svea School on U.S. Highway 71 south of Willmar.
Villars and ALC teacher Claire Hendershott had brought the students to the school as part of the United Way's Day of Caring program. They spent the morning tie-dying their "Live United" T-shirts and then worked outdoors.
In addition to the vegetable and flower garden they planted, the teenagers helped plant day lilies, fill in some holes in the lawn and clear brush. Some young men unearthed several small bounders.
The forest tent caterpillars were an unwelcome surprise for the people who were working in the small grove along the northern and western sides of the property. One boy came across two snakes.
Still, they seemed to enjoy the day.
"It's a lot of work, but you can make it fun," said Valeria Medellin, 14, an eighth-grader at the alternative high school.
Using donated plants and dirt, the students planted a garden designed by Amanda Larson, 14. Larson showed where the pumpkins, cucumbers, cantaloupe and squash were planted. Across from the entrance gate, morning glories and other flowering vines were ready to start climbing.
Villars seemed thrilled with the results. She said the students knew that "all the things they're doing help us save money, so what we do have goes farther," she said.
She enjoyed watching the students throw themselves into the work. She smiled as a trio of boys pulled dead wood out of the grove. Villars said she hopes the clearing will eventually be the site of a community art project.
"It's so wonderful; nobody has their headsets on," she said. A student had asked if he could listen to music while he worked, but she told him to wait until they took a break. At break time, no one headed for their music players.
Villars said some of the students in the group didn't know each other that well, so it was fun to see them interact. "I don't think I've ever seen them talk to each other," she said as she watched two boys dragging a big branch out of the woods.
Kim Ness, the program coordinator at the ALC, said spending the day helping someone else is beneficial for the students.
"It gives them a sense of self-worth," Ness said, "and they're working together."
The day wouldn't be possible without the ALC teachers, both those at the site and those who stayed at the school with other students, Ness said.
As cars and vans waited to shuttle the students back to school, Villars summed up: "Your work today was awesome."