Watershed Voice
Summer 2011
Beyond Books

Swanson Middle School Provides a Great Service to Holland Island

By Susan Bernard, CBF Volunteer

A Swanson Middle School student carefully cleans a headstone
Above, a Swanson Middle School student carefully cleans a headstone in one of Holland Island's two historic cemeteries.
Photo credit: Elysa Miller/CBF Staff

Just this past fall, the last standing house on Holland Island washed into the great Chesapeake Bay. As one of the disappearing islands of the Bay, "Holland Island holds a special place in the hearts of the Islanders," states Elysa Miller, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) educator who works at the foundation's Karen Noonan Center (KNC). Once a flourishing community, the last families residing on the island left in the early 1920s due to increasing water levels, erosion, and sinking of the land. However, two cemeteries still remain, which provide an invaluable connection to the history of the island and the families that once lived there. Since becoming uninhabited, no one is around to maintain the cemeteries and pay homage to those who have been laid to rest there, or is there?

Every year, classes from all over the mid-Atlantic region get out of doors to learn about the Chesapeake Bay. History and science are two of the main areas taught on the excursions, however, there are always many other lessons to be learned when out with the educators from CBF. Recently Debbie Neuhaus-Palmer and her students from Swanson Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, embarked on a trip that provided a valuable experience in humanity. "Our school motto is service, spirit, and scholarship," states Neuhaus-Palmer. "I always ask that a service project be a part of our trips" and "this was the best service project to date for me." A dedicated teacher and supporter of the Bay, Neuhaus-Palmer has been attending class trips with the CBF for nearly 20 years.

During the recent trip, students dedicated time to provide maintenance to one of the two cemeteries on Holland Island. Overgrown at the student's arrival, the cemetery was about to receive the ultimate cleanup. Not only did the students weed and cut down the overgrowth, gently scrub lichens off the headstones and complete trail preservation, they also took the time to map out the area and transcribe the words on the headstones. Neuhaus-Palmer explained that the "students really felt that they were giving back to the people of the Bay, either directly or indirectly, to their descendents." It seems that the students weren't the only ones who benefited from such a meaningful service project. Elysa Miller explains, "the people who live on the Chesapeake Bay Islands take really good care of their cemeteries as a way to honor the ancestors of the community. This service project gave the students a lot of insight into the cultural history of Holland Island, as they uncovered and copied down the poems on the gravestones, as well as a chance to serve the Holland Island community that once prospered here on the Bay." The service project brought personal satisfaction to Miller and her fellow CBF educators, who had frequently talked about cleaning the cemetery as a way of paying tribute to islanders’ history. The CBF staff members were so happy with the outcome they decided to share the newly manicured cemetery with the next class they had on the island.

As the school year comes to an end, educators look back on both the lessons they have taught others and the lessons they have learned from those they teach. There are magical moments when the "light bulb" goes on in a student's mind and the connection has been made. CBF is proud and privileged to continue to be able to share some of these moments with the teachers and students who are a part of the Chesapeake Bay family. Service projects such as this provide a lasting impact on all who are involved. There is no substitute for getting outside to learn the curriculum while making a strong connection with nature.

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