Joshua Guerrero and his nine Sigma Kappa Phi fraternity brothers had one day left of their winter break Jan. 17 to pursue their favorite leisurely activities - including enjoying some extra sleep - before the start of their spring 2011 classes at The University of Texas-Pan American.
But the brotherhood of students chose to join in a day of volunteerism and giving back to the community at UTPA's first Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service organized by the University to honor King's legacy of leadership and helping others.
"We sacrificed one morning - it's nothing. You always feel great when you give back," he said.
The group of about 40 volunteers, mostly students, helped provide needed upkeep to Restlawn Cemetery in Edinburg. Restlawn is located on a half acre in the northwest corner of Hillcrest Cemetery. It is considered to be the only cemetery in the Rio Grande Valley for African-Americans established in the days of segregation. The cemetery includes an estimated 60 gravesites dating back to people born in the 1800s and those of a number of World Wars I and II veterans. Recently it has become the site locally where people gather to observe Juneteenth, a nationally celebrated event in June to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.
During the daylong service event, which ran from 8 a.m.-2 p.m., the students picked up trash, pruned trees and shrubbery, tore down an old fence surrounding one of the graves, scraped and repainted a fence bordering the cemetery, washed headstones and painted and mounted a number of freshly made wooden crosses at gravesites that had its cross damaged or vandalized. The students were joined by a number of volunteers from UTPA's Office of Sustainability, who are working with City of Edinburg forester Edward Kuprel, to develop a phased plan for native plantings at the cemetery.
Marianella Franklin, UTPA's manager of campus sustainability, said a preliminary assessment for plantings has been conducted and she hopes her office can help locate grant money to support the provision of irrigation to the cemetery site, which was recognized with an Historical Marker by the state in 2008.
Valarie Ramirez, a former teacher and a Hidalgo County Historical Commission Board member, who worked alongside the student volunteers, said the overlooked cemetery was rediscovered almost 20 years ago and many groups over the years have helped clear the extensively overgrown site. They included the Edinburg's Baha'i faith community, the Homer Salinas Rehabilitation Center (Hidalgo County Boot Camp) and the local American Legion Post.
"It has become a community effort," she said.
Ramirez helped conduct the necessary research and paperwork to have the historical marker placed at the site and became emotional when talking about the turnout and support of the student volunteers.
"I would never have imagined this number of volunteers would be here working," she said. "It is amazing and I'm so proud of them."
Ramirez said the cemetery has become a place for healing and hopes it can be a place where people can learn more about the community and the people buried there.
Kuprel, who has helped address some insect infestations of trees in the cemetery and plans to monitor the health of future plantings, said sponsorship and support for the cemetery is welcomed.
Saulter, who called the service event a great tribute to King, recalled that he was 5 years old when King made his famous "I have a dream" speech in 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during a civil rights march on Washington, D. C.
"Four words etched in our dialogue that defined the destiny of a moment and a change to our country forever, 'I have a dream,'" he said. "Decades later, equally significant words would again alter the course of our nation's history - 'yes, we can ... si, se puede,'" he said.
He encouraged students to continue to work to achieve universal human rights and to pursue their dreams.
"Martin Luther King's legacy lives in the hearts, in the minds of all of us who believe the world can be a better place," he said. "Now is the time for your dreams to come true."
Bianca Abarca, a senior majoring in psychology, who ended the day with her hands covered with white paint and spatters of it visible in her hair, said she was into volunteering and helping out people.
"Martin Luther King was always an inspiration, he helped out his own people. Even if it is a small thing you do as a volunteer, it can make a difference," she said.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service was organized by the Office of Student Life and Transition Services (SLTS) at UTPA. Other participating groups included Student Development, Residence Life, Student Union, University Program Board and the Office of the Dean of Students. Sponsors included Uncle Roy's Bar B Que in Pharr, American Legion Post 408 in Edinburg, which donated the American flags placed at the gravesites, and Larry Ocanas, from SpawGlass, who donated materials and labor for the replacement crosses.
Erica Lopez, SLTS program coordinator, who organized the event, expressed her gratitude to the UTPA students and staff, community members, Dean of Students Dr. Calvin Phillips, and the service day's committee members for the success of the event.
"As a community we came together and revitalized and honored an important part of Edinburg's history," she said.
For more information on the cemetery, go to the Restlawn Cemetery Facebook page. For more information on UTPA service projects, contact Lopez at (956) 665-2492.