Even though it was the perfect day to be at the river, Emily Rodriguez, Matthew Hunt, Collin Durfee and Meilin Jokela were staining wooden boards at a home on Lake Earl Drive.

Volunteers with the Sierra Service Project, 15-year-old Emily, 14-year-old Matthew, 13-year-old Collin and 12-year-old Meilin were among 47 youth scattered throughout Del Norte County doing repairs for local homeowners, gardening at the Family Resource Center and the Community Food Council’s food forest at College of the Redwoods as well as painting at the Crescent City United Methodist Church.

Last week, Emily, Matthew, Collin and Meilin were building a wheelchair ramp at the home of Lorraine Engle.

“It’s nice to meet the people you’re working with,” said Emily, a 10th-grader from San Matteo, adding that the volunteers are from different communities. “We’re getting to know each other and getting to know the homeowners too.”

The Sierra Service Project, a faith-based nonprofit, has brought volunteers, youth and adults, to Del Norte County for six summers in a row, said Megan Walsh, the organization’s executive director. This year a total of 265 youth and 87 adults will work in the community with a new group of volunteers arriving each week, she said.

This week there were 47 youth and 19 adults volunteering, according to Walsh. Next week there will be about 70 volunteers. Sierra Service Project volunteers are based at Smith River School and the community’s United Methodist Church across the street, but volunteers work as far as Hiouchi, Gasquet and Klamath, she said.

The Sierra Service Project began working in Del Norte County six years ago at the invitation of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation’s housing authority, but, Walsh said, the work has changed a lot since then.

“We’ll work for anyone,” she said, adding that the youth volunteers are in middle school and high school. “We don’t really care if they’re tribal members or not and in fact most are not connected to any of the tribes. We’re really open to the community.”

This summer, volunteers will be constructing three wheelchair ramps, two sheds, a set of stairs, a deck and a fence, Walsh said. On Wednesdays they volunteer with the Tolowa Dunes Stewards pulling invasive European beach grass, she said.

“They’re a great partner for us,” Walsh said. “They teach our youth about the biological diversity of the area and how it’s so important the work they do to provide habitat for critters and native plants.”

According to Jeff Bruno, a member of the Epworth United Methodist Church in Berkeley, the teens volunteering at the dunes received awards for the biggest pile of invasive plants, the best area cleared as well as the longest root. He noted European beach grass must be removed by hand, which isn’t easy.

Bruno, who oversaw the wheelchair ramp construction at Engle’s house, said Sierra Service Project volunteers are just in the beginning stages of building the ramp. Last week another volunteer crew took down a previous ramp and placed post-holders for the new one, he said. In addition to staining the wood, Bruno said his crew is also drilling holes for the posts.

“Hopefully in about four weeks they’ll have a deck (and a) ramp,” he said, adding that Engle provided snacks and told the volunteers about her sister, who will be the one to use the ramp. “It’s really neat to be here.”

Engle said the wheelchair ramp will be used by her sister, who’s severely disabled. She said she found out about the Sierra Service Project through Sutter Coast Home Health. She noted that the volunteers also used picks and shovels to pour concrete.

“The kids were working so hard out there, doing it the hard way with a pick and a shovel to dig down to pour concrete (and to) put the brackets in,” Engle said. “I can’t wait to see what it’s going to look like when it’s finished.”

It hasn’t been an entire week of work for the volunteers, however. Meilin, Emily, Matthew and Collin said after pulling beach grass at the Tolowa Dunes, they visited Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park for a barbecue and an afternoon at the river. They also have time to bond with young adults from other communities, they said.

“It’s really fun to meet all new people and make new friends,” Meilin said.

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