Inmates, volunteers clean up cemetery for Shamokin's 150th
SHAMOKIN - Under the dreary Wednesday sky, a team of volunteers brightened a cemetery by righting fallen tombstones, mowing waist-high grass and collecting fallen limbs.
The project is one of several coordinated by Jeffrey Fromm to spruce up the city for the upcoming 150th anniversary celebration.
The group of nearly 50 included 17 inmates from Schuylkill Federal Prison Camp near Minersville, as well as local officials, service groups and private citizens. Fromm also arranged for 10 prisoners to help with an upcoming project of pressure washing downtown façades, which had been scheduled for Friday but will be delayed until May because of an ongoing street light replacement project.
Fromm, a former Federal Bureau of Prisons employee, came up with the idea to incorporate the inmates during a conversation with Eric Noll, deputy chief U.S. probation officer for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Their combined experience in corrections allowed them to supervise the minimum-security inmates.
"They're doing a very good job," said Fromm. "This is a major undertaking for us, but we're making serious progress."
Warden Jeff Krueger and camp supervisor John Dunkelberger visited the worksite to admire the progress of the project they helped coordinate.
"I love community service projects; it's all about being a good neighbor," said Krueger. He hopes to make inmate volunteerism a recurring event in Shamokin.
Elsewhere in the cemetery, a group of eight volunteers from M&T Bank placed flags at the resting places of veterans. Of the 16,000 graves in the Shamokin Cemetery, approximately 800 are veterans.
Jodi Berry, manager of the Shamokin M&T Bank office, said when Fromm approached her with a flier advertising the cleanup, she thought it was a great idea, so she brought it to the bank's leadership. Her colleagues traveled in from branches in Columbia, Montour and Northumberland counties.
State Rep. Kurt Masser (R-107) and Mayor William D. Milbrand pitched in, roaming the hillside on riding lawnmowers.
Milbrand, who is also president of the nonprofit association that manages the cemetery, voluntarily transported the prisoners to the cemetery at 6:30 a.m. on one of the buses he owns at Catawese Coach Lines.
"My grandparents and my great-grandparents are buried here," said Milbrand. "It's going to look nice for the 150th and give people pride to walk through this. That's our goal."
Milbrand said the city authorized two street workers to haul away debris collected in the cemetery.
The fact that employees from the cash-strapped city were involved in the effort at the private cemetery was the subject of one complaint call registered with The News-Item later Wednesday. But Milbrand said it was a minimal investment of city resources.
"The people who built this town are buried in this cemetery, and it's the least we can do," he said.
Masser donated lunch for volunteers, including members of the Shamokin Lions Club and the Shamokin Rotary. City Councilwoman Barbara Moyer also donated her time and effort.
Sol Bidding watched while two inmates, one of whom is a veteran, tended to Soldier's Circle. Taking note of the wind-worn American flag flying above the monument, a stone brought back from the Civil War, Bidding said he hoped to replace the flag and trim the surrounding trees.
By late morning, the crew had cleared nearly half of the hillside, cutting away thick layers of grass that had overgrown flush headstones. Fromm said he hoped that by 3 p.m. they could have the entire cemetery in tip-top shape.
"Everything is mowed, everything is trimmed," said Fromm. "I'm happy."