About 50 community members gathered with work gloves, rakes and gardening tools at the Silverbrook Methodist Church to finish clearing the thick briars and brush along the Newington Heights Park walking path that connects Sullenberger Court to Monacan Road.
On Nov. 10 and Dec. 1 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., volunteers cleared the brambles, thorns, vines and dead brush out of the woods between the path and Silverbrook Road and piled them up on the side of the path to be picked up by the Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA), which would shred the brambles into mulch.
South County Secondary School (SCSS) senior Kaylee Ahnberg, who attended the cleanup to earn service hours for her Environmental Science class, said volunteers worked hard.
"We have been cutting down briars with loppers and moving them to the opposite side of the path, and also taking out any dead brush," Ahnberg said.
SCSS students in Leadership, Government, Civics, and Environmental Science classes along with students in honor societies and Boy Scout Troops 994, 863 and 688 attended the PTSA-coordinated event to receive service hours.
The PTSA provided volunteers with doughnuts; the Daily Grind donated coffee; and the Athletic boosters donated hot chocolate. In addition, Silverbrook Methodist Church opened its facilities to workers, allowed its parking lot to be used as a staging ground, and agreed to dispose of trash and recycling.
"This [cleanup] struck me because of the sense of community spirit and accomplishment. It's a big community-building act. Even though it was really hard work, everyone could see the results of their hard work and what a difference it made," said event coordinator and PTSA President Sandy Moses.
The event was planned because a student was assaulted on that path last spring and robbed of his iPod. The PTSA Safety Committee thought it would be safer if the wooded area between the path and Silverbrook Road were cleaned so that walkers could be visible from the street.
"The community kept on saying to me, ‘isn't there something we can do about that path to increase the safety?’ That's what I heard literally every PTSA meeting," said South County Principal Dale Rumberger. "We came to the realization that to encourage more people to walk and to make it an easier commute for the kids, we needed to do something."
So in September, Rumberger, director of security R.C. Gamble, the PTSA and Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) met with the FCPA to discuss what could be done about the path.
The FCPA agreed to grant permission for private individuals to cut down plants on Newington Heights Parkland under four conditions.
First, volunteers were required to identify what they were cutting and they were also not allowed to chop down trees and indigenous flora, such as rhododendrons. Secondly, the volunteers were required to recycle glass and plastics and throw away trash that they found in the woods between the path and the road. Also, the volunteers were not allowed to remove plants in the woods on the other side of the path. Lastly, the community would become responsible for maintaining the wooded area every year.
After negotiating with FCPA for three months, it only took two days to finish removing over 350 yards of brush.
"This is a very defining moment in terms of what our community is willing to do for safety and security," said Rumberger.
Because the path is now visible from the road, Ahnberg said that walkers would feel safer when going to school. "It calms the fears of the community, knowing that there are not going to be any attackers hiding under brush," said Ahnberg.
Schulhof is Editor-in-Chief of The South County Courier.