Amid chirping birds and a brilliant early spring sun, dozen of volunteers assembled Saturday to refurbish strategically placed stands in the Wheelabrator Wildlife Refuge.
And at the heart of this event were 10 West Deptford Middle School students who had worked their way into an exclusive organization. Every year, the seventh- and eighth-graders at WDMS are given the opportunity to submit an essay on environmental issues to the people at the Wheelabrator waste-to-energy power plant as part of a joint program between the company and the middle school.
Those chosen are asked to pitch in with local environmental projects and education.
“It’s really an accomplishment to be accepted into the program,” said Joan Petito, the mother of one of this year’s chosen students. “They’re learning a lot.”
Her daughter Christina’s essay was one of 80 submitted this year to the people at Wheelabrator.
Student Cammi Arseneau wrote an essay on recycling colored paper, certain kinds of batteries and other objects she felt people might not know could be recycled.
Seventh-grader Brendan Persicketti’s essay was on the pollution along the river in West Deptford, brought on by his interest in local fishing.
Suzanne LaGrange and her daughter Corinne were also at the event. LaGrange said she was extremely proud of her daughter for being accepted among the many and that there was a lot of work done at school leading up to the first outdoor project of the year.
Besides painting and repairing the elevated stands, the students were working on signs for each stand which would provide a description of the wildlife a visitor might see when looking out into the preserve. One WDMS student in particular, Grace Kresge, had written the descriptions for each sign, and according to the organization’s adviser Robert Creamer, is a very gifted writer.
“The kids are great,” said Creamer. “There’s a lot of social awareness. They’re very environmentally friendly in West Deptford.”
Creamer and representatives from Wheelabrator meet once a week after school with the selected students. So far this year they have already created an educational video for students at Greenfield Elementary, presented an assembly, and built a slew of bat houses to improve the dwindling bat population in the area.
Jake Mangano, one of the ten students selected this year, was in charge of creating the bat houses. Creamer lauded the young environmentalist for giving up many of his recess periods to assemble and paint the houses.
“I just like being with my friends. It’s a fun group and I like helping the environment,” said Mangano, as he painted the deck of a nature stand.
His mother and many other parents were also giving up their Saturday morning to help with the project.
Another one of the parents, Julie Persicketti, mother of Brendan and aide to the nurse at WDMS, has been instrumental to the program throughout the year, Creamer said. Earlier in the year, she created costumes for all the students involved in an educational video about bats, birds, bees and butterflies, and their relationship in the environment.
Mark Maslinski and his daughter Lauren were working on a different stand. Maslinski said that his daughter “really likes things that relate to the environment” and was proud and honored to be part of the group.
“I think it’s fantastic. I’m so impressed with West Deptford schools,” said Maslinski.
According to Maslinski, his daughter was also excited to be in the program because of the trip in May down to Fort Lauderdale, FL.
Every student in the program gets to be a part of the Wheelabrator Symposium, which involves fifteen different schools ranging from New England down to Florida. The 10 students from West Deptford along with chaperones and their adviser will head down on May 2 to present a 25-minute presentation to their peers.
The second day will involve an “activity day” where the West Deptford group will get to show kids from other areas their findings and enjoy a day at the Miami Sea Aquarium.
“Wheelabrator picks up the cost of everything, so it doesn’t cost the taxpayers any money,” said Creamer.
Mike Kissel, plant manager at Wheelabrator Gloucester, has been working with West Deptford schools for the last four to five years, but the relationship between WDMS and the Wheelabrator Wildlife Refuge has been going on for over a decade.
“It’s kind of a hidden gem,” Kissel said about the refuge. “Not many people know about it. The people that do are here every day.”
On top of supporting these youth in their environmental endeavors, Wheelabrator contributes to the local environment in other ways.
They own 150 acres on this plot and only use about 40 acres for the plant, with the rest set up as a wildlife refuge. In addition, the waste-to-energy power plant processes 525 tons of trash a day and generates fourteen kilowatts of electricity.
In the last two years, it has been certified as a wildlife habitat by the Wildlife Habitat Council, and is one of the only privately owned parks in Gloucester County.
According to Kissel, their next project will be to seed the area and release wild quail.
One of the best places to get a view of them will be from one of the newly refurbished stands, thanks to the work of dedicated West Deptford volunteers.