A group of Girl Scouts and volunteers helped clean up West Acres Park in Yardville last month. Pictured are (front) MacKenzie Kohlmayer, Rebecca Briegs, Samantha Horne, Skylar Bird, Julie Mastropolo, Mary Boyer, Kaleigh Bird, (back) Hamilton Hound, Mike Brescio, Joe Geraci, Lou Sirinakis, Bob Faber, Lise Riedy, Home Depot Store Manager Mitch Emslie, Hamilton Mayor Kelly Yaede, Luis Hernandez, Vinnie Schroeder, Allen Szucs and Arnold Toure.

On the Monday morning of their spring break, six Reynolds Middle School girls could have been at home on Snapchat, binge watching a favorite series or YouTube videos, or even catching up on their sleep.

Kaleigh Bird, Skylar Bird, Rebecca Briegs, Samantha Horne, MacKenzie Kohlmayer and Julie Mastropolo instead were spreading mulch and topsoil, painting playground equipment, digging out flower beds and planting flowers and cleaning West Acres Park in Yardville as part of a Silver Award project for Girl Scouts.

“These girls really enjoy each other,” said Pat Horne who leads Whitehorse Yardville Service Unit Troop 71226 along with another mother, Lisa Bousquet. “They’re adorable. They’re a great group. Some of them have been together since kindergarten.”

The park revitalization was one of two Silver Award projects that the troop is finishing this spring. Girl Scouts of the USA allow Silver Award projects to be organized and completed in a group. The Silver Award is the highest award for Cadettes. The next step—the Gold Award project—is individually organized and only open to high school students. Their troop began formulating plans for the park and another project to raise awareness for the Hamilton Animal Shelter almost two years ago. Each of the girls has spent more than 70 hours working on the projects.

“Most of the stuff they’ve done with Girl Scouts is community driven,” Horne said. “They’re not campers, they’re not kayakers, they aren’t sitting around the campfire. They’re really community service oriented.”

They found two Silver Projects near and dear to their hearts. Rebecca spent many of her toddler days playing at the West Acres Park at the end of Old Post Lane, off East Acres Drive, and she wanted other children to have that same opportunity. She found the park very different from the one in her memory. Today, it was a park that wasn’t being used and had been seemingly forgotten by Hamilton Township, which maintains the park.

“It has changed very much since I remembered it,” Rebecca said. “It’s gotten a lot dirtier. Some of the things have broken, like there’s a slide that’s a little bent to the side. It was vandalized. They sanded over some curse words in the tube slide. We’re repairing everything.”

Rebecca, MacKenzie and Julie headed up the park project, but all six girls participated in the makeover that culminated during three days of intensive work at the park leading into their spring break. As part of the project, the girls planted a new dogwood tree and dug a new flower bed around it, put in flower beds and mulch around three other trees, planted flowers and bushes and painted the two playground sets and upgraded the sets’ equipment. They had to replace two wheels on the playground for smaller children, and they added two new swings to the set for bigger children. A bike rack was ordered and will also be installed.

“It was so run down,” Horne said. “I would never take my kids there before because it was so disgusting. It’s beautiful now. It’s really a shame it got that bad. I don’t know why the township didn’t pick up on it sooner.”

Fortunately the Girl Scouts saw an opportunity to help. They were able to give the park a new look.

“It was really like night and day,” Horne said. “Even the paint, they changed a little bit. It was red, blue and yellow before. They kept the yellow, but they changed everything to forest green because the red and blue were so faded.”

Volunteers watch a dump truck deposit a delivery of mulch at West Acres Park in Yardville, where Girl Scouts helped renew the deteriorating facility.

The Girl Scouts worked in conjunction with Home Depot, which provided vital resources and support with volunteers and supplies to complete the park’s restoration. The scouts made a presentation about their project that convinced Home Depot to assist them. Home Depot donated at least $1,000 of supplies and equipment, Horne estimated.

“Besides labor—because they brought plenty of people three different times—they supplied the top soil, the plants, the trees, edging for the flower beds, all the paint and brushes and they painted everything top to bottom,” Horne said. “Between Home Depot and the girls, everything got repainted. We’re not sure the girls could have done that on their own. It wasn’t in our original plan, but then Home Depot said, ‘We’ve got paint, we can do that,’ and our girls and Home Depot started it. Home Depot did the final coat.”

Over the three days of work at the park, Home Depot supplied a total of 22 volunteers, including store manager Mitch Emslie, who worked alongside everyone. Longford Landscapes of Hamilton donated all the mulch that the park needed. The suppliers’ generosity allowed the Girl Scouts to put all of the money they raised toward their animal shelter project.

“Though we’re small in number, we’re very hard working,” Rebecca said. “We knew what we were going into. We knew what we were going to do. We were OK with that. We knew this was going to be rough and we did it anyway. We knew we were going to bear through it, but there’s been nothing to bear through. It’s been awesome. It’s almost sad that it’s over, but I’m excited how it’s going to turn out.”

It took about two years to take the park project from an idea to completion. The troop had to follow procedures and get township approval, solicit and coordinate help from Home Depot and remain on task to finalize it.

“I’ve learned how to be good with community,” Rebecca said. “My troop has met a lot of people through this. We’ve met the mayor, and we’ve been meeting a lot of people and become closer with the community.”

Hamilton Township Mayor Kelly Yaede was on hand at West Acres Park on April 10 to acknowledge the girls’ work and contribution as they spent their break completing the work. She had high praise for their efforts and surveyed the vast improvements in comparison to before photos that they had to show her.

“This project really highlights how community service and volunteerism makes a positive difference in Hamilton Township,” Yaede said. “Anytime that our civic-minded residents, local businesses and our community’s young adults can work together towards a collective goal, great successes can be achieved. I want to commend Troop 71226 for their dedication and tireless efforts to enhance the park, along with local businesses like Home Depot and Longford, which contributed supplies and resources to help make the service project possible.”

The scouts’ renovation was already attracting more usage to the lone public park in the spacious Yardville neighborhood.

“The only people using it when we were there were people there walking their dogs,” Horne said. “There’s a huge empty field behind the park. There were a few people walking their dogs, but nobody came to play. Some of them said now they’ll bring their kids now that it looks so nice.

“Rebecca did go back. Everyone has been taking turns watering the new flowers. She went back, and she brought her friends with her. They were riding their bikes there. It was so warm and beautiful, she said the park was getting used already.”

Also there alongside the mayor to celebrate the park’s final steps in revitalization was the new “Hamilton Hound” mascot that was the focus of the troop’s other Silver Award project.

Skylar, her older sister Kaleigh, and Samantha took the lead on the mascot project, which raised money to purchase the costume. The idea behind the project would be to have a mascot that could raise awareness about the shelter and could appear at public events. The troop solicited votes from all 17 area elementary for the mascot name.

‘We feel like we want to do more. We expect more from ourselves to help our community.’

Skylar and her sister adopted two cats from the shelter, but kept hearing that many people did not know Hamilton had a shelter. Their project, too, had to sift through the proper procedures to reach its conclusion.

“It was not easy, but not hard,” Skylar said. “We had to talk to the Girl Scout Council. We had to get approval from them. Then we had to get approval from the township, then we had to get the approval from the schools.”

They received more than 1,000 votes for the name that will be announced at a public event in the near future, and credited Jay Morris, Director of Elementary Education at Hamilton Township Public Schools, for helping them draw votes in the elementary schools. At the same time, the girls were busy raising $1,200 for the mascot costume. They raised funds by wrapping Christmas presents, hosting a painting event and (naturally) selling cookies. So many donations poured in that the girls decided to produce rubber bracelets to give to donors in thanks for their generosity. The troop was uplifted by the support it received for the animal shelter project.

“We got way more donations than we expected, and more ballots in than we expected,” Skylar said. “We expected about 500. We basically got two times as much.”

It was reassuring for a troop that has been hard at work to ensure their projects were a success. They have come away thrilled that they could help make a positive contribution in their community with the park renovation and helping connect people to their local animal shelter.

“It makes us feel really good knowing that we’re making a difference, that we’re helping out a bunch of kids that will be happy to have a park near them,” Rebecca said. “We feel very happy about it. We feel that we’re making a big change and it’s making us very happy.”

Said Skylar: “I learned that there’s more than meets the eye. In real life, you never notice how many donations the animal shelters might need around you. And you don’t know about the parks. That’s a small step too. We learned so much more in the time we’ve been in Girl Scouts.”

Four of the six girls have been in the troop since they were in kindergarten, and despite other interests and obligations that could pull them away, they have stuck with their small but mighty Hamilton troop.

“I’ve really seen them grow together as well as individually on being so determined,” Horne said. “They’re very busy otherwise. Some girls only do scouts. These girls are so busy. I always ask them, ‘Are you sure you want to continue?’

“They’re very focused. They’re determined. They have a lot of fun together, which I think helps. They truly like each other. That always makes it easier to work together when they’re working in a group. Even now going into high school, we thought some of them would drop out. They’re growing up and it’s not so cool anymore, but they say they want to do it.”

With the completion of their Silver Award projects, some of them have already begun to brainstorm about their next service opportunity. The Gold Award is the highest achievement possible in Girl Scouts.

“I’m going to help homeless vets find jobs and get better and get stable on their feet,” Skylar said. “I was planning on going around and seeing how many homeless people there are. In my English class, I’m learning how homeless people live and how hard it is for them. One of the movies that inspired me that my English teacher showed me was ‘The Pursuit of Happyness.’ That’s when I learned it’s really hard and it’s really sad what happens. There are even kids that are growing up being homeless.”

It’s another ambitious project. Their Silver Projects were well designed and important as well, and thanks to their persistent efforts, they have been completed to foster a lasting, positive influence on Hamilton.

“We feel like we want to do more,” Skylar said. “We expect more from ourselves to help our community.”