By Susan Smallheer
Hundreds of volunteers turned out Saturday morning to clean up and spiff up the Vermont Farmers Food Center, as part of the national Comcast Cares Day.
The volunteers, joined by dozens of Comcast employees, did everything from paint a peeling box car to sort dirty bricks and concrete pavers. They made raised beds, they raked dirt and corralled leaves, they cut brush, spray-painted over graffiti and filled flower boxes with fresh dirt.
Girl Scouts from all over Rutland County, as well as Middlebury, helped clean up the neighboring West Street Cemetery, removing months of accumulated winter debris including tall piles of leaves and downed limbs.
The incredible work bee was part of the 17th annual Comcast Cares Day, and the Rutland project was one of two sites in the state that benefited from the attention of Comcast employees, their friends and neighbors, and people who care. The other site was in South Burlington, said Melissa Pierce of Comcast Cable, manager of government and regulatory affairs.
College of St. Joseph students, Dismas House volunteers, Castleton University lacrosse players and Girl Scouts joined dozens of people who care about Rutland, starting at 7:30 a.m., and continuing past 2 p.m. People with no affiliation showed up and registered, and by mid-day, Comcast had handed out more than 250 bright-green Comcast T-shirts, said Russell Schoengarth, Comcast technical operations supervisor.
Greg Cox, board president of the Farmers Food Center, which is home to a variety of agriculture programs, as well as the Rutland Winter Farmers Market, said he had no idea how the West Street center was chosen by Comcast, but he was appreciative for all the help.
Steve White, of Rutland, a retired Comcast employee and a member of the Rutland Rotary Club, said he had suggested the Farmers Food Center as the perfect community target.
But White and others said they were astounded at the turnout Saturday, which certainly was the nicest day of the month, as people left their own Saturday chores alone and turned out for the Farmers Center.
White said he and others were afraid that some of the benefits of the Rotary greenhouses would be lost if the Farmers Center didn’t get cleaned up.
“It was an absolute mess,” he said.
In back of the buildings, Chad Hicks and Logan Hicks, 8, the Comcast father-and-son team, were raking a bank clear of leaves and debris.
White said the turnout “just exploded” Saturday morning, with people coming from all over Rutland County and beyond to participate. Cox said he was surprised and not surprised by the turnout.
The Farmers Food Center is a “real source of community pride,” he said, as someone walked up to him and said: “Where do you want me?”
The volunteer quickly was given a rake.
The Rotary Club donated the greenhouses last year, and they are slated to be used starting Monday as part of the food and agriculture curriculum being championed by Rutland City schools.
Fourth-graders will learn how things grow, said Cox, and where their food comes from. Classes will expand to other grades next year, he said.
The Farmers Food Center is located in an old foundry complex, he said, and is a symbol of Vermont and Rutland’s changing economy.
Volunteers were cleaning and raking new dirt on a bank above the Baxter Street Alley, which Cox said had been a “pretty dangerous” area until the Farmers Food Center moved next door.
“I think neighbors in the neighborhood appreciate this,” he said. Volunteers had painted the concrete bricks, blotting out graffiti.
But at one point, two Rutland City police officers were called to pick up some discarded hypodermic needles a volunteer uncovered.
Volunteers were busy cutting lumber and fitting the boards together to form raised beds inside the greenhouses, which are immediately adjacent to the Farmers Center.
The Rutland Winter Farmers Market was bustling with the normal Saturday morning crowds perusing everything from cider doughnuts to maple syrup to grilled-cheese sandwiches to potted snowdrops and French bread.
Rutland City Mayor David Allaire said the spruce-up of the area was wonderful, for an area of the city that needs all the attention it can get.
He said the transformation of the Farmers Food Center was remarkable. “It’s almost like a game-changer,” he said.