After September 11, 2001, like almost everyone, Drew Leister was overcome by feelings of disbelief, nervousness and sadness.
“There have been so many horrific stories of thousands of lives and the difficulties first responders have faced,” the Pittsburgh resident said of the days, weeks, and months after al-Qaeda attacked the US, I think most people did their best to keep going. “
A ray of light for Leister during this dark time came through a message from Sandy Feather, a horticultural instructor at Penn State Extension, informing him that he was being accepted into the Allegheny County Master Gardener program.
“I remember thinking this was something good to look forward to among all the tragic stories,” he said. “I’d always been interested in gardening as a hobby, but now I could learn more and educate others with information from Penn State research.”
In the 20 years since then, he has been an active master gardener and informs the public about sustainable horticulture and environmental responsibility, as far as his schedule allows.
A recent call for assistance with a clean-up project at Somerset County’s Flight 93 National Memorial – the area where one of the four hijacked planes crashed after passengers and crew regained control – was a task he was unable to complete.
“I went back 20 years to remember where I was and what I was doing when I found out about the 9/11 attacks,” he said. “I felt it was necessary to see the site and help with the project. With celebrations for the 20th anniversary, volunteering was a small part that I could do. “
Leister and over 80 other master gardeners from across Pennsylvania gathered at the historic site on August 13 and spent the day pulling weeds, pruning, and removing plant debris.
Andy Savage, Rob Kruljac and David Ruyak, members of the Penn-Del Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture, helped the Penn State Extension horticulturalists maintain the gardens at the Flight 93 National Memorial. (Image courtesy James Savage)
The idea for the project came from James Savage, Assistant Professor of Horticulture at the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State. He and his colleague Bill Elmendorf, Professor and Ibberson Chair of Community and Urban Forestry, support the National Park Service, which oversees the memorial, with tree care.
During a visit in July, Savage noticed several parking lot islands and surrounding land that had been overgrown by weeds, notably the Canadian thistle, a fast-growing and difficult-to-control species. Trees and shrubs also had to be pruned.
From his previous interactions with park staff, Savage knew that despite all efforts, there are challenges to preserve the 1,500-acre monument that has a plaza, the Tower of Voices – a 93-foot-high musical instrument with 40 horn bells that carry the 40 passengers and crew members – the Wall of Names and a private area for the families.
“They don’t have an arborist or a gardener on the staff,” said Savage. “I thought they could use the help of people with expertise in these areas to effectively address the problems.”
At this point he contacted the Penn State Extension Master Gardeners. The request went to Area Master Gardener Coordinator Valerie Sesler, whose region includes Somerset County. Although manual labor is outside the educational remit of the program, Master Gardener’s management felt the project warranted an exception.
“The memorial is a sacred place that reflects an important time in our country’s history and resilience, especially with the upcoming 20th anniversary of September 11th,” said Sesler. “However, we only had a short window of time to get the job done, so we weren’t sure how many of our volunteers could help.”
An explosion of email quickly answered that question. Within a few hours, more than 50 master gardeners confirmed their participation in the clean-up day on August 13th. About 30 more got involved shortly afterwards.
With the guidance and assistance of Brenda Wasler, Natural Resource Manager, National Parks of Western Pennsylvania, the Master Gardeners, park staff, and members of the Penn-Del Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture helped with the gardening duties.
A total of 13 large trailer loads – and several smaller ones – of branches and weeds were removed. And in line with the master gardener’s mission, an educational component was incorporated – Savage gave tree care lessons to the master gardeners and visitors.
“The volunteers worked hard and were positive despite the brutal heat,” said Sesler. “We understand how important it is to remember the victims of this tragedy and to honor their courage. The day was very emotional, but also very enriching. “
After the day’s tasks were done, many of the volunteers, including Leister, toured the memorial, listened to presentations and reflected. “I went down to the wall of names,” said Leister. “It’s a sobering walk. Everyone had respect and awe, read the names and looked at the trajectory. “
Wasler thanked the master gardeners and the others who had volunteered that day. She said the monument, which has received 3.8 million visitors as of 2007, relies on volunteers to preserve the landscape.
“I was amazed at the work done,” she says. “Thirty minutes after cleaning up, I saw a noticeable difference. We couldn’t have brought together so many knowledgeable and knowledgeable people who were so enthusiastic. We appreciate your help in ensuring that the National Memorial on Flight 93 is ready to welcome families and visitors for the upcoming celebration. ”
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