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Volunteers groom Arsenal cemetery for Make a Difference Day

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Lots of people made a difference by putting on work gloves Saturday at Arsenal Street Cemetery in Watertown.

Rakes, hoes, clippers, shovels and wheelbarrows were the tools volunteers used to do so on Make a Difference Day, the country’s largest day of community service. By noon on Saturday, a mammoth brush pile of sticks and clipped lilac plants stood at the cemetery’s entrance. A cluster of volunteers who’d orchestrated the work during the morning were seated at picnic tables at the gazebo, taking a break to snack on homemade cookies and pizza donated by Cam’s Pizzeria in Watertown.

Arriving from the cemetery to join the group was Shawn M. Traynor, a senior at Watertown High School. Mr. Traynor, whose arms and shirt were splotched with paint, was among four members of Boy Scout Troop 23 who pitched in to help. The group also worked at Calvary Cemetery on Ridge Road earlier in the morning, where they painted a maintenance shed and repaired a large crucifix statue.

“I’ve been painting and staining wood and clearing cut trees,” he said. “I try to be an example for (younger scouts) and figure this is the best way to do it. My parents were never around growing up, so I realize the kids need someone to look up to.”

It’s the sixth straight year volunteers have scoured the cemetery to collect trash and groom the plot, said Kathy T. Plante-Hunt, volunteer director of the cemetery. She started the clean-up day in 2007 as a way to show her son, Daniel J., the importance of community service.

“The city might have thought at the time that I would clean off a few headstones and leave, but we’re still here,” she said, pointing to identify her son, now 18, among the group. She said much of the labor on Saturday was spent pruning lilac bushes that had engulfed many of the gravestones, making their names unreadable.

“It’s been liberating to see the names on the gravestones,” she said. “Maybe it’s been 20 years since someone has seen these names, so it’s kind of a spiritual thing.”

The cemetery looks much different now than it did when Mrs. Plante-Hunt first became a volunteer. Its gazebo and walking bridge were built through the help of professionals and volunteers, and the finishing touches are now being added to a recently built kiosk at the entrance. One side of the kiosk will include a history of the cemetery and list of the deceased, while the other will highlight upcoming volunteer projects.

“I used to drive up and down Arsenal Street without noticing it, but you now see it when you drive by,” said Jean M. Atkinson, a parent volunteer for Boy Scout Troop 23. “It gives the community something to be proud of. And I like to see all the kids working here, because they don’t get to volunteer much.”

The next major project planned at the cemetery is an arched entrance gate with a sign, including a fence that would fully enclose the site’s perimeter along Arsenal and Willow streets. Mrs. Plante-Hunt is now seeking nonprofit status to raise money for the project, which will be in the neighborhood of $100,000. The plan was designed free of charge by Watertown’s Bernier, Carr Group, and a project blueprint is now posted on the kiosk.

Participants also included Cape Vincent Correctional Facility and Boy Scout Troop 33, Black River.

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