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Local volunteers show up to make a difference

| Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Sharon Ellis, of Harrison Township, a volunteer with the Friends of Harrison Hills who first became interested with the group when hiking the trails, runs a blower in the outdoor classroom to clean up leaves on Saturday, October 26, 2013 at Harrison Hills Park.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Patrick Kopnicky, a council member of the Friends of Harrison Hills, operates an electric trimmer to cut down stalks or remove the tops on dead plants in the butterfly garden at the environmental learning center Harrison Hills Park, on Saturday, October 26, 2013 at the park in Harrison Township.

Sharon Ellis is new to Harrison Hills Park. And on Saturday, she was new to using a leaf blower.

Ellis of Natrona Heights was among a handful of volunteers who came out on Saturday to help spruce up the park's environmental learning center and outdoor classroom as part of the nationwide Make A Difference Day.

Her goal with the leaf blower was to get wet leaves away from wood in the outdoor classroom area behind the learning center so it wouldn't rot.

“I just decided I needed to get out in the community and help out,” she said. “It's a way to get to know some people who are committed to the community.”

The community service day was created by USA Weekend Magazine in 1992. It is every year on the fourth Saturday of October.

In addition to Harrison Hills, events planned in the Alle-Kiski Valley included cleanups by the Brackenridge Improvement Group and Trinity United Methodist Church at Grandview Upper Elementary School.

In Apollo, the Apollo-Ridge Education Foundation and Apollo Area Business Association were gathering volunteers for light chores, mowing, trimming, sweeping and painting around the borough. They were motivated by remarks from former state Rep. Jeff Coleman, who in an April appearance said people need to talk with and get to know each other if communities such as Apollo are to survive.

At Harrison Hills Park, Paul Dudek of Freeport, a volunteer for several years, was raking leaves despite cool wind gusts that threatened to undo his work. He came dressed for the chilly weather, which didn't deter him.

“Groups like this need people who are workers. I have the time. I'm retired,” he said. “This park's a gem. It's really a nice place.”

Mardelle Kopnicky, a former member of the Council of Friends of Harrison Hills Park, said she was expecting about 20 people to come over the course of the day, for one or two hour sessions. It was their third year taking part in Make A Difference Day; another cleanup is held in the spring on Earth Day.

The work is important.

“It's just like a home. If you don't do the upkeep it will get worse and worse and worse,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do here.”

Work inside the learning center included removal of scores of stink bugs, alive and dead, and insulating the front door in hopes of keeping them out.

Odessa Garlitz of Buffalo Township was using a shop vac to get them out from between the pipes of a radiator. She may have been perfect for the job. “I can't smell them,” she said.

Cleanup of a butterfly garden unearthed a sizeable crop of Jerusalem artichokes, a root vegetable from a species of sunflower native to eastern North America.

“It's amazing how plentiful they are,” said Kopnicky's husband, Patrick Kopnicky.

For anyone interested in helping out at the park, volunteers are welcome all the time, Mardelle Kopnicky said.

“More people would make it a lot easier,” she said.

Ellis said her interest in the park goes beyond just the day.

“This is going to be as much of a commitment as I can make it,” she said. “This is a hidden gem.”

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or

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