HOULTON, Maine — In the weeks leading up to Memorial Day, the maintenance crew at the Evergreen Cemetery in Houlton is busy getting the expansive grounds presentable after a long winter.
Despite their efforts to maintain the town-owned resting place, however, there is one thing the workers have been having trouble keeping up with — the amount of litter being discarded by visitors.
But thanks to 19 Houlton High School seniors who are a part of Jobs For Maine’s Graduates, the problem is not as bad as it once was.
Jobs For Maine’s Graduates is a statewide nonprofit that works through schools with more than 5,000 students from grades 6-12, in 76 programs throughout Maine. The goal of the program is to provide students with the skills and resources they need to overcome educational barriers and succeed in postsecondary education and in the workforce.
Dee Butler is a job specialist for the JMG program at Houlton High School.
Over the past few years, the woods on the outskirts of the cemetery have become strewn with artificial flower arrangements, faded wreaths, worn trinkets and other materials that people have discarded once they have become too unsightly to remain on gravestones any longer. When the problem was pointed out recently on social media, Butler volunteered her JMG students to participate in a cleanup effort.
“We went out there in two class blocks of time,” she said on Thursday. “The first block of time I took 10 students, and the next block of time I took nine students. They really got into it, and they were amazed and also really saddened by the amount of trash that they hauled out of the cemetery. It was really upsetting for them to see what people were throwing in a place that is supposed to be a respectful area, where some of their relatives are buried.”
Butler said that the19 seniors hauled 22 extra-large garbage bags of trash from the area around Evergreen Cemetery. That included a few sets of tires and television sets.
“It was just amazing to my students,” she said. “One thing that came out of it was that a number of them said that as a result of the cleanup, they were no longer going to purchase artificial flower arrangements for the grave sites of their relatives, they were going to plant real flowers instead. They saw how they had just spent a few hours putting tons of pieces of plastic into garbage bags. Some of the graves were just rounded over with artificial arrangements. It was discouraging to think that they had cleaned all that up and Memorial Day was going to come and the artificial flowers would be put right back on.”
Houlton Police Chief Butch Asselin, who also is interim town manager, said Thursday evening that he was grateful for what the youths had done. He said that the town has had issues with people improperly disposing of trash in the cemetery, which is why there are no trash barrels out there. In the past, he said, people have dumped their own garbage in the cemetery barrels, leaving the town on the hook for the bill to dispose of it. The only solution was to take the barrels away.
“When you have people coming in there and cleaning out their cars or leaving two bags of trash, the town has to pay for it,” he said. “And it adds up all summer long. I don’t know why people don’t carry out their trash with them when they remove items off the graves. I think maybe it would be appropriate to put some signage out there to help.”
Asselin said that the police department often checks the cemetery, because it also can be a haven for drug users. It is illegal to be in the cemetery after dark.
Butler is proud of her students’ work.
“They have done cleanup work before and they do not do it for notoriety,” she said. “They do it because they are a part of a community, and pitching in is what being a part of a community is about.”