David Parker initially struggled to come up with an idea for a project that would allow him to become an Eagle Scout. When his father told him about the efforts to protect and repair Woodland Cemetery in East Henrico, it seemed like the perfect opportunity – he felt a connection to the historic African-American cemetery and was interested in the work of restoration in progress.
For his project, Parker, a 17-year-old Scout from Troop 501 in Varina, will build eight benches for the cemetery. The Woodland Restoration Foundation has been working for two years to repair the cemetery, where tennis star and humanitarian Arthur Ashe and famed pastor John Jasper are buried.
Parker is one of a handful of Boy Scouts who have chosen to volunteer at Woodland for their projects, said Marvin Harris, executive director of the foundation.
“[The scouts] could have done hospital work, volunteered anywhere, but they chose to contact us and come here,” Harris said.
Usually scouts ask members of the foundation what they need, but Parker contacted Harris with the idea of building benches. Many descendants of those interred are older, and the pews will allow them to spend more time in the cemetery, Harris said.
Four of the benches will be arranged around a fountain under repair. Two will be near a building that Harris and Woodland Restoration Foundation board member John Shuck plans to turn into a mini-museum or learning center, and the others will be elsewhere in the cemetery. In addition to uncovering headstones and general upkeep, the restoration foundation hopes to pave the roads.
About 30,000 people are buried at Woodland Cemetery, Shuck said. John Mitchell Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet, founded the area’s second-largest African-American cemetery in 1917. Harris and Shuck became involved with Woodland after years of volunteering at Evergreen Cemetery, another African-American cemetery. Historic American nearby.
A third of the land is still forested, Harris and Shuck said, and clearing brush is a priority for the foundation. Most volunteers are helping with the most needed tasks right now, which often include mowing the lawn, trimming weeds and cleaning gravestones, they said. Many young people who volunteered enjoyed “probing” the headstones, many of which were several feet underground.
Parker decided to help out at Woodland last fall, but had to put the project on hold until this month. The student from Highland Springs High is at the school’s engineering center and is a drum major in the marching band. He credited his Eagle coach, Stacie Baird, for helping him “refocus” on his project.
Last Wednesday, Parker created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the rental of tools, sandpaper, plastic sheeting and other supplies. He is already close to reaching his $1,200 goal after promoting it on his social media.
Parker plans to start building the benches later this month and have them installed at the cemetery by November. His troop members and classmates will participate in the work, he said.
Parker’s work is just one example of the efforts of local Woodland students.
Another scout volunteered to clear an area near Ashe’s grave with the help of her religious community, which continued to remain involved, Harris and Shuck said. Other high school students are working on creating an interactive map that will help visitors navigate the cemetery.
Shuck said he was optimistic that more young students would volunteer as pandemic restrictions eased. He and Harris hope volunteers from nearby schools who stay in the area after graduation will continue to return to Woodland Cemetery to help as young adults.
Along with Shuck and Harris, Henrico’s first-grade teacher, Kathleen Harrell, helps recruit young people to volunteer at the cemetery.
“We want the young people here because pretty soon I’m going to be pushing a walker and we’re going to have to keep going,” Harris said.