High schoolers work together to clean up Vermillion

Vermillion high school senior Sarah Szymonski is always looking for her next community service project, even if it's just on a bike ride.

As Szymonski was riding her bike during Megan's run, she noticed the trash that was just sitting in Vermillion's ditches, prompting her next project — a high-school led clean-up of Vermillion.

About 140 Vermillion high-school students helped clean-up the town on October 18. Senior Sarah Szymonski organized the clean-up and got many local businesses to donate to help with the clean-up efforts, which took place after Dakota Days. (Courtesy Photo)

Szymonski started planning the clean-up and came up with the date of Oct. 18, a Monday, because it was an in-service day at school and it was right after the University of South Dakota's Dakota Days.

"I tried to organize it with other high school students and some volunteers, and we found a time that worked for everyone," Szymonski said. "I thought after D-Days would be great because of all the trash around Vermillion."

Szymonski thought it would just be a small event since it was a day off for the students.

"Going into it, I thought we would get maybe 50 students, which would make it not a huge failure," she said.

However, there was nowhere near 50 students who participated in the clean-up, there were 140 students, almost a third of the students from VHS.

"It was really cool to have this many students to do this on their day off," Szymonski said.

Szymonski wasn't the only one at VHS who pushed the event. Teachers gave out extra credit points for students who helped out with the clean-up, and other students got their friends to commit to the event who didn't sign up.

"We had 20 people who showed up that didn't sign up," Szymonski said.

The whole clean-up was student-organized with the exception of two people, Jere Chapman and Szymonski's mom, DeAnn.

The students didn't just show up to get extra credit either, they went to work to beautify Vermillion. By the end of the day, the students gathered just over 800 pounds of trash and filled three pick-up trucks and the trunk of one car, which was a lot more trash than Szymonski thought would be picked up.

"I was really surprised at the success and how much trash we were able to gather," she said.

Part of the reason so much garbage was gathered was because Szymonski, Gage Thomas and Jessica Martensen organized the event to be a fun one.

The organizers created incentives, which included coupons for some of the local businesses in Vermillion, and activities that encouraged the students to find as much trash as they could.

"We had all the groups write down what they found, like from the biggest thing to the weirdest thing; one group brought back 27 bags of trash," Szymonski said. "We gave out the coupons after we found out what everyone accomplished."

Local businesses also played a part in the city-wide clean-up. Szymonski said Thomas did 90 percent of the fund raising for the event, which was significant since $1,000 was raised for the clean-up.

"A lot of businesses were willing to help," Szymonski said. "It's awesome they back the high schoolers."

The lunch for the students was donated, which included hot dogs and chips. Chapman donated the pop and Trinity Lutheran Church provided desserts for the event. Szymonski said both Hy-Vee and Jones' Food Center both donated different things for the event.

Part of the money went to shirts for all of the student volunteers. The shirts were bright orange and said 'Vermillion City-Wide Clean-Up Day.'

"We picked orange because it was bright and could be easily seen, which was for safety because we didn't want anyone to get hurt or anything," Szymonski said. "It also was meant to unify us and show everyone around Vermillion we are working to make the community better."

This won't be the only time the event will take place. The city-wide clean-up will now become an annual event, and even though Szymonski is a senior, her sister and one of her friends vouched to take over planning the event next year.

"We had a lot of positive feedback, and everyone enjoyed the experience, so we had the idea to do it again," Szymonski said.

Szymonski added that some of the sponsors have already committed to next year's event.

Szymonski hopes the event helped show the students how much of a difference they can make around their community.

"It sent the message that kids can do a lot when they work together," she said. "I hope they got that message that when they are motivated they can help set something like it up."

Szymonski will now look for her next project, which she hasn't lined up yet.

She is no stranger to community projects. A couple of years ago, Szymonski went to the the Hugh O'Brian leadership conference, which challenged everyone to have 250 hours of community service by the same time the next year.

Once again, Szymonski wasn't close to the 250 hours at the end of the year's span – she had a final total of 387 hours. Now she is up to 530 hours.

"I am really proud of it, and I am always looking for new projects," she said.

Some of the projects Szymonski has done is shovel sidewalks during winter, clean houses for the elderly, helping out at Trinity Lutheran Church and getting groceries for a resident in Vermillion who has Parkinson's disease.

"Volunteering is my passion, and I will probably do it for the rest of my life," Szymonski said. "I get bored if I am not helping out."

Szymonski will attend college in New Mexico next year and she is planning on majoring in elementary education.

If anyone has a project for Szymonski, she can be contacted at szymonski_72@hotmail.com

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