July 18—The sun was already shining overhead as Anthony Kline and Bryce Okonski began tackling Aulenbach Cemetery overgrowth.
As the teenagers guided the weed trimmers between the closely spaced headstones, beads of sweat pooled on their foreheads and ran down their cheeks.
The heat and hard work didn’t stop them.
Kline and Okonski, both 17 and from Mount Penn, volunteered to help mow and trim and were determined to complete a section near the center of the 21-acre cemetery before the day was out.
They and about 100 Mount Penn residents and others were recruited for the week-long cleanup effort by Joseph Cunliffe, a borough councilman.
Bounded by Perkiomen Avenue to the south, Howard Boulevard to the north, Cemetery Lane and South 19th Street to the west, and private and public properties – including Central Berks Police Department headquarters – along North 22nd Street to the east, Aulenbach is partly in the borough and partly in Reading.
Cunliffe said she noticed her unkempt appearance and contacted the board of the all-volunteer cemetery.
“I knew I had to do something,” he said.
The nonprofit has a small budget for a part-time employee or two at $10 an hour, a few hours a week, said Edward Gensemer, chairman of Aulenbach’s board of directors, but the board was unable to find enough help.
There are a handful of dedicated volunteers in addition to a few council members who mow and weed when they can, council member Jan Lawrence said.
Met-Ed crews also volunteer twice a year, Gensemer said, and the cemetery board is very grateful. But that help isn’t enough to cope with the 20 hours of work a week needed to stay on top of lawn care in the spring and summer, he said.
If more volunteers cannot be found to help with upkeep, he said, the cemetery society could be forced to fold.
If that happens, Cunliffe said, the cemetery will become the responsibility of the borough and the city. And that would place an unfair burden on the taxpayers of those municipalities, he noted.
The borough councilor was determined to do what he could to help.
Cunliffe organized a work week and called on borough residents, veterans groups, professional landscapers and others to ask for help. He also contacted local restaurants for food donations to feed the crew.
“It’s good to know you have the support of your local community to step up and lend a hand,” Gensemer said.
Recruiting volunteers and soliciting donations is easy for Cunliffe, a sales and marketing professional and former civilian coordinator of the local Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots campaign.
“That’s what I did for years,” he said. “You’ll never see me with weed killer in my hand, but I have absolutely no problem picking up the phone and saying, ‘These are the needs. How can you help?'”
Various forms of service, ranging from administrative skills to technical skills, are needed to operate the cemetery, he said.
“It’s really just a matter of finding out what each person’s strength is, having a plan of action, and implementing it,” Cunliffe said.
Kline, a senior at Antietam High School, signed up to earn some of the community service hours needed to graduate.
Okonski, his friend and classmate, is a volunteer with the Mount Penn Fire Company and once fulfilled that obligation, but saw a need and wanted to help.
“I plan to help every day this week,” he said last week, noting that grass and other growth near headstones should be trimmed with handheld tools to avoid damaging the stones. .
Some stones sink or have fallen and need to be reset, Okonski said, but that’s a job for another time.
The volunteers’ priorities last week were mowing and trimming the ground and removing a tree that had recently fallen, Cunliffe said.
Lawrence of Exeter Township said dedicated volunteers are needed to keep up with long-term maintenance, but the workweek organized by Cunliffe is a good start.
“We are very grateful,” she said. “You cannot know how grateful we are for all the help we receive.”