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Mount Vernon dedicates new playground, memorial garden
'Barren wasteland' gets some shade thanks to Arbor Day celebration
Pat Hardesty, left, and Greg Murphy pull the burlap bag off the root ball of a tree that was planted Friday in the new playground at Mount Vernon Elementary School. - photo by Tom Reed

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Arbor Day awards
These winners were announced Friday morning at the Hall County Arbor Day celebration:

Trees are Terrific poster contest
First place: Victoria Carnes, Mount Vernon Elementary
Runners-up: Kevin Aramburo, McEver Elementary; and Alondra Gonzalez, New Holland Elementary

Tree replacement fund grant recipients
Centennial Elementary
Challenged Child and Friends
Chestnut Mountain Elementary
Hall County Board of Education

More than 100 students and parents of Mount Vernon Elementary School planted 27 trees Friday in celebration of Arbor Day at the grand opening of the school's renovated playground.

Stephanie Usrey, mother of a Mount Vernon Elementary fourth-grader, said students learned the value of trees firsthand, as their playground had nearly no trees until Friday.

"You cannot imagine, it was a barren wasteland here," she said. "We had only two trees out here. It was like a desert."

Usrey said a group of Mount Vernon parents decided the playground needed an overhaul in early 2007. Parents and students got to work organizing fundraisers, writing grants and soliciting local businesses for donations.

Students, teachers and parents held a 5-kilometer road race to raise money and sold engraved brick pavers for the circular centerpiece of the playground.

"We had a vision to make this more than just a playground. We wanted this to be a community place in North Hall where people could bring their children to play," Usrey said.

The Mount Vernon community raised about $75,000 to add 60 trees and bushes, swings, sidewalks and benches to the playground area.

School parent Joan Jackson said she came to plant trees at the school on Arbor Day because they have made the playground so much more inviting.

"The trees are just going to make it so much nicer for the kids," she said. "When I was growing up, I couldn't imagine not having had trees to play around and climb."

The grand opening of the playground also marked the opening of the playground's butterfly memorial garden honoring former Mount Vernon student Jessi Hawkins, who died of heart complications in 2000 at age 18. The garden features a magnolia tree planted Friday.

Kim Backman, Hawkins' mother, cut the ribbon marking the opening of the Jessi Hawkins Peace Garden. Backman said her daughter, North Hall High's homecoming queen her senior year, served as an after-school counselor with the Mount Vernon Elementary YMCA program.
Backman said the peace garden at Mount Vernon jibes well with the memories of her daughter.

"Jessi's signature when she walked up to people was peace the peace sign," she said.

Heather Geltz, a friend of Hawkins', attended the garden's opening ceremony with her daughter, Claudia, a second-grader at Mount Vernon.

"It's a great way to introduce Claudia to Jessi," Geltz said. "She passed away a month before Claudia was born, and now I can bring (Claudia) over here and introduce her to Jessi. She's definitely somebody I wanted her to meet. She was the best role model. She was always smiling and she was a friend to everybody."