PEOSTA, Iowa — Faith Surface gripped a yellowing stalk of prairie grass with one hand and, with a sweeping, upward motion of her other hand, stripped it of seeds.

“This is an important way to keep up the environment,” Surface said, as she dumped the freshly harvested seeds into a bag.

The senior was one of more than 900 Western Dubuque High School students who performed service projects across Dubuque County on Wednesday as part of a day of service.

Surface was among a group of 50 students who performed volunteer tasks at Swiss Valley Nature Center just outside of Dubuque. Half of the students collected walnuts, while the other half joined Surface in harvesting seeds from a prairie at the top of a still sodden ridge.

“It’s nice to have this much manpower,” said Allie Schmalz, a naturalist at Swiss Valley.

She said the students’ tasks were two that preserve staff likely would not have had time to perform this fall because of cleanup efforts resulting from the unseasonably wet weather.

“We had a lot of flooding, and the park needs to be put back together,” Schmalz said.

Schmalz said the walnuts would be used in a program about cooking with the nut held in conjunction with Convivium Urban Farmstead. The seeds collected by Surface and the other students will be used to populate prairies throughout Dubuque County.

Michah Rolwes, a senior, was among the students plucking seeds in the ridgetop prairie.

“It’s cool to help,” he said. “I like helping out in the community.”

Christine Tipple, the school’s director of vocal music, was among the organizers of Wednesday’s service day.

“We started it two years ago in the fall,” Tipple said.

At that time, students remained in the school buildings, performing small projects.

Tipple said the catalyst for this year’s day of service was the implementation of a Senior Scholar program in lieu of a National Honor Society and valedictorian and salutatorian designations. The Senior Scholar program includes a silver cord that students can earn.

“To earn this silver cord, students have to do 120 hours of volunteer services, so there was a need to educate kids on what it means to be a volunteer and why it is important to be a volunteer,” Tipple said. “It’s also important for them to understand the impacts they can have on society.”

Tipple said about 100 students spent the day in the school building working on projects. Another 830 students traveled to various locations around Dubuque County. A teacher accompanied each team of students.

A group of about 40 students helped staff at National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque clean parts of the lower Bee Branch Creek. Other scheduled locations for projects included Resources Unite, Northeast Iowa Community College child care and Hawkeye Care Center.

“It’s wonderful because it backs up when they say, ‘be good people’ and not academic robots,” Surface said. “It’s important to do your best and do your part to give back. This is how you can be a whole, well-rounded person.”

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