LAST year around this time the River Rats cooked burgers for about 100 volunteers from Cummins Inc. on the old Bartholomew County Senior Center patio overlooking East Fork White River.
Thursday and Friday, the Rats will return to the grill to prepare grub at Donner Park for another bunch of Cummins Inc. volunteers. This time they’ll be feeding 120 hungry folks.
I suspect this is going to become something of a tradition, not just the cooking part but a whole bunch of odds and ends jobs that will get accomplished in a few hours instead of several days or even weeks.
It’s an interesting combination considering that the River Rats more than a few decades ago were doing many of those same kind of odds and ends jobs.
Last year the Cummins volunteers erased a few hundred yards of debris and flotsam from the river’s edge near Mill Race Park and spiffed up the area around the Foundation for Youth.
The Rats did that, too but it was back in the 60s and 70s when they were the same age as today’s younger counterparts.
In fact, the River Rats — who came by their name because of all the grunt work they performed in keeping the river banks clean — have become identified with these grassroots clean-up projects.
They stopped doing the heavy lifting a few years back — a recognition of the aging process that had taken place in their bodies.
I won’t reveal any ages, but you get a pretty good idea from the fact that I’m one of the kids in the group.
In recent years the Rats have been pretty much limited to a catering role. Their annual Appreciation Breakfast is the group’s major fundraiser, and they’ve been called on to serve meals for a number of other community events like the Farmer’s Market.
The membership is pretty much the same. Most of the original Rats who spearheaded the original development in the 1960s of Mill Race Park (the land on which it was developed had been called Death Valley which should give people a pretty good idea about its environment) are gone. In fact, Jim Dunn, the Columbus contractor who refuses to act his age, is the only one of that group left.
It’s headed by Jack Schmeckebier today, and he has been on a years-long recruiting effort for new Rats.
“We’ve gotten younger people involved in a number of these physical projects over the years,” he said recently. “The problem is that we just can’t maintain the momentum and keep them involved.”
The lack of new blood has had an effect, even diminishing interest in cooking sausage and egg breakfasts.
But last year, the Rats were given a new opportunity — the chance to support younger people in cleaning up areas around Columbus. This wasn’t just a handful of volunteers. There were dozens of them.
It all stemmed from the effort by the engine-making company to get their employees more involved in the communities in which they lived and worked.
The company had created an initiative whereby each employee would be given four hours off from work to dedicate to volunteerism.
It’s not unprecedented but the people at Cummins have approached this effort with a team mindset.
For instance, the employees in the corporate finance department and intern program at the company had heard about the need for volunteers to do grunt work at Foundation for Youth and along the river banks.
They volunteered as a group with the Parks and Recreation Department.
Nick Rush, director of the park department’s maintenance program — and one of the other “kids” in the River Rats — worked out a coordinated game plan with specific assignments and designated park personnel to supervise.
It was a mini D-Day preparation. Even he was surprised to learn he would be working with a team of 100 volunteers.
“At the end of the day, we were amazed at all those folks had accomplished,” Nick recalled after the work was done last year. “That group accomplished in a few hours what would have taken our teams several days.”
The corporate finance group and interns have signed up for this year’s clean-up at Donner Park which will include a sprucing up of the park grounds and area alongside the fence bordering city cemetery and a major overhaul of the garage area across the street from the cemetery.
Several of those who were involved in last year’s project have returned for this event.
“Actually, we had to spread this over two days because of the logistics,” said Rachel Blagg, one of the Cummins volunteers. “Word of mouth spread about last year’s outing and all of the sudden we had 20 more people.”
Blagg said the project proved to be a lot of fun for employees who in their day jobs have vastly different duties.
“But it also gives us a chance to network with others,” she said. “We even get a chance to work with people in the community like the River Rats.”
The Rats are taking it on a come as it goes basis.
Jack Schmeckebier would love it if these younger volunteers would become Rats, carrying on the tradition of work and the Rat name.
But even if these younger volunteers go on to other pursuits, the Rats can spend two days this week watching them work and remember times when they could go out and do the same kind of thing.
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