In a city that is waving the white flag when it comes to keeping its public spaces mowed, Oak Grove-Bellemeade Elementary School represents a freshly manicured counterpoint.

The George Wythe High School students began gathering before 4 p.m. Monday at the adjacent Bellmeade Community Center wearing blue work coveralls. After receiving their marching orders from Harris Wheeler, a retired horticulture instructor at Richmond Technical Center, and Groundwork RVA project manager Will McQuate, some students began tossing mulch into a truck, to be spread along a fence in front of the school. Others fired up mowers and began cutting tall grass on a slope behind the community center.

“When we first started, it was funny to see these boys even try to start a lawn mower,” said Bob Argabright, a retired Chesapeake Corp. executive and a longtime volunteer at Oak Grove.

The well-tended grounds are a stark contrast to the grass that grew more than 2 feet high in some places in the spring of 2013, a few months after the new school opened. City crews had taken over the grass cutting from the school district, but were unable to keep pace.

Argabright, a board member for Groundwork RVA, which also oversees Green Teams at Armstrong and Community high schools, took an idea to that organization’s executive director, Giles Harnsberger: What would Oak Grove look like if we recruited 10 George Wythe High School students to care for the campus while learning about conservation?

The answer was evident Monday on the well-tended grounds, compliments of the Oak Grove-Bellemeade Green Team.

City Councilwoman Ellen F. Robertson gave the team its initial funding of $16,000, which went toward paying the students’ $8.50 an hour wages and programming. Funding for the current fiscal year came from City Council and private sources.

The group meets regularly on Mondays and Tuesdays after school and occasionally on weekends. They’ve heard talks from landscaping professionals and taken field trips to places such as Virginia State University and the Country Club of Virginia, “just letting them see a different level of turf management,” Argabright said.

This summer, members of the group will take a weeklong trip to New River Gorge National River in West Virginia, to learn more about conservation and recreation. The outdoor sports retailer REI and the National Park Foundation, the charitable arm of the National Park Service, are funding the trip.

The goal is to create employment opportunities and develop conservation skills, Harnsberger said.

“Then they come back and get a better idea of how to treat their own neighborhood, and treat it as if it’s as special as a national park,” she said.

The transformation of the school’s grounds is clearly a source of pride to the Wythe students, who consider Oak Grove part of their neighborhood. Their landscaping handiwork has not gone unnoticed and has served as its own recruiting tool.

“One day I was coming to play basketball and I saw a bunch of my friends in the courtyard by the parking lot working on a project,” said Wythe junior DeAndre Dublin. “I asked them what they were doing and they told me they were doing landscaping and they were getting paid for it, so I asked to be a part of it.”

He asked for an application from Wheeler and has been on the job since December. He likes learning about landscaping and teamwork while developing a work ethic and life skills that will serve him in the future.

“I want to take part in helping my community, you know what I mean? Basketball wasn’t really my thing anyway.”

“If we keep up the good work, I can see other people asking us could we do some work for them,” said Wythe junior Marvin Battle.

“Basically, everything we do here is for the community,” said junior Devon Holmes. “We basically make this community look good.”

“At first I thought about helping out my community, making it seem, like, a little more spiffy … and then on top of that, for me to get out of the house and make money while doing it,” said Wythe freshman Treyvon Chillious.

Argabright said that when the new Oak Grove-Bellemeade was built, there were more than 4,000 trees, shrubs and ornamental grasses on the property, as well as 400 cubic yards of mulch. “For two years, me and two volunteers drug hoses all over the place.”

It became too much, but “I wasn’t going to let this thing go to pot,” Argabright said. That’s when he approached Harnsberger.

This team is as much about what these students learn as what they earn while doing it.

The goal is to take ownership of this property and help these boys develop life skills and career options ... to help them understand there’s a big world outside this neighborhood,” Argabright said. “You can use this whole property as a way to reinforce what they’re learning in school.”

He’d like to see Oak Grove become a demonstration site. Argabright says school officials would like to take the team to perform similar magic at Huguenot High, Martin Luther King Middle and Broad Rock Elementary and to maintain courtyards in other schools.

Students learn conservation, life skills, a work ethic — and possibly, a future career — while taking ownership and pride in their beautified communities. A short-staffed Department of Public Works receives relief and reinforcements.

Let’s plant the seeds to expand these programs to other schools, so that Richmond can win this turf war.

Receive daily news emails sent directly to your email inbox

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

(804) 649-6815 Twitter: @RTDMPW

More from Michael Paul Williams

Michael Paul Williams Read more commentary on life in Richmond from Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.