Martin Luther King holiday turns into “on” day for White River, not day off

White River students pushed up their sleeves and kept digging until they found the buried picnic tables in South Prairie’s Veterans Park.

On the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, about eight students showed up at Sandra and Dennis Smith’s Wilkeson home. Although the sun was out, temperatures were chilly as the group stood knee-deep in mud that had been pushed against their home by an overflowing Gale Creek. The students, clad in fire department hand-me-down boots and equipped with Red Cross-provided shovels, were tossing heaping loads of silt out of and away from the Smith’s garage.

As the day wore on, the number of helping hands grew to 30, as those who were helping other Wilkeson families or who were tidying up next door at Wilkeson Elementary School, joined the team. By mid-afternoon the Smiths were breathing easier.

“We were just amazed,” Sandra Smith said. “As soon as they were done with something they would ask what’s next. These kids were working nonstop, not a complaint.”

“It will make the job we have to do now so much easier. Dennis and I just couldn’t do it all by ourselves,” she said.

Simultaneously, about 60 students, some parents and 10 staff members showed up in South Prairie where Mayor Peggy Levesque helped deploy groups to work with homeowners who needed post-flood assistance. Another group of students went to the recreational vehicle park. Some kids were sent to Veterans Park were they dug out picnic benches buried in mud and yet another group was cleaning up the final bits of silt from the fire station parking lot where South Prairie Creek piled up 4 to 5 feet of the sandy stuff.

Thousands of sandbags also had to be rounded up, Levesque said, and the students were eager helpers. She said they even filled more sand bags for next time.

Levesque said it was “just amazing” and she was dashing off a note to the Emergency Operations Center to let them know.

“They got a lot done,” Levesque said. “They were just so responsible and compassionate and they had fun, too.

“I’m really grateful as the mayor, but as a citizen too, and as a human being, to have that kind of response from a group of high school kids. It’s just heartwarming.”

The two groups, representing White River High School, the district’s two middle schools, staff, and even a few elementary students who showed up with their families, were part of what is being coined, “Make It a Day On, Not a Day Off.”

“We were looking for a way to begin a meaningful, reflective way to participate in the Martin Luther King holiday, rather than just an assembly,” Principal Mike Hagadone said.

With the national theme of “A Day of Service,” groups started to brainstorm about opportunities. With the recent flooding, as leaders were looking around the community the project became obvious and then picked up steam.

“We came along beside him and made it happen,” said Herb Entz, who – along with the White River Prevention Team, Rachel’s Challenge club, a number of other school organizations, city officials and disaster responders – began doing the legwork of organizing the day’s activities. “It was a good opportunity to show the community that high school kids do have something to offer.”

“As I talked to our kids who were out there they genuinely felt they were helping and they were making a difference,” Hagadone said. Working with the flood victims also made them more appreciative of their own situations.

“As a school, we definitely walked the talk of Martin Luther King’s ideas,” Hagadone said.

Reach Brenda Sexton at or 360-802-8206.