Minnesota college students spruce up Port Matilda Cemetery on spring break tour

A group from Students Today Leaders Forever work at the Port Matilda Cemetery on Wednesday.
A group from Students Today Leaders Forever work at the Port Matilda Cemetery on Wednesday. CDT photos

The hills are alive, which is strange considering that they’re covered in tombstones.

Music echoed across the vista of Port Matilda Cemetery courtesy of an iPhone positioned precariously on the bark of an old tree.

It wasn’t a somber, funereal dirge. In fact, the tiny speakers may as well have been blasting the lyrics to “Whistle While You Work,” because that’s exactly what the 44 college students from the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota were doing.

Young men and women in sweatshirts, hats and gloves roamed the hallowed grounds, picking up sticks, leveling graves and unclogging drains. This wasn’t a class requirement or for extra credit — this was spring break 2015.

The students represent one of three buses that departed St. Paul last Friday afternoon carrying members of Students Today Leaders Forever, an organization that seeks to instill leadership in college, high school and middle school students through service opportunities — and the long trip from Minnesota to Washington D.C. has provided plenty of them.

By the time their bus arrived in Washington D.C. on Wednesday evening, the students had stopped in five service locations in five states on their Pay It Forward Tour, using their spring break to get involved in communities across the country.

“It’s been a life-changing experience,” Jared Sachs, a freshman at UST, said.

Sachs joined STLF last December. When he signed up for the Pay It Forward Tour, he and the other recruits on the bus had no idea where it would stop each day before reaching Washington.

Over the course of the journey, Sachs found himself doing spring cleaning at a community/senior center in Kenosha, Wis., volunteering with Reins of Life in South Bend, Ind., teaching children business basics in Canton, Ohio, and raking yards in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

“The inspiring part wasn’t seeing someone’s yard clean, it was the look on their faces,” Sachs said.

Bus leader Joe Salz worked with three other senior members of STLF to help plan and coordinate each stop on the Pay It Forward Tour. The students utilized the organization’s online database to determine where they could find service opportunities — and housing — along their route to Washington.

Salz was responsible for organizing the excursion in Port Matilda. He had managed to secure the students housing at Park Forest Baptist Church in Patton Township but still needed to find a service project in the area. Barb Daughenbaugh, the church secretary, reached out to her brother at Port Matilda Cemetery, who was willing to accept the help.

The students planned on finishing their work at the cemetery by 1 p.m. — many of them unaware that they would be making a surprise stop in Gettysburg before rendezvousing with the other two buses in Washington, where they’ll sightsee and take part in a cleanup effort along the Anacostia River.

Salz said the group was grateful for the warm reception here.

“You have to be really thankful to be around so many people who are willing to help,” he said.