KINGSTON, R.I., May 17, 2016—“Hold your head up.” “Work hard.” “Smile!”
Those are the messages Woonsocket middle school students proudly painted on a walkway they installed outside their schools in a project involving an educational outreach program at the University of Rhode Island—and a URI landscape architecture graduate with a big heart.
Will Anderson, who graduated from URI in 1992, and the Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences program, or SMILE, teamed up to help the adjacent middle schools of Villa Nova and Hamlet.
The stone pathway will be dedicated during a ceremony Thursday, May 19, at 2:15 p.m., at Villa Nova, 240 Florence Drive, in Woonsocket. Students, teachers and administrators are expected to attend.
“It is so gratifying to be part of this project and help the students create a place that’s so special,” says Anderson, of Cumberland. “I am thrilled to assist. I learned as much from them as they did from me.”
Created in 1994 by Carol Englander, the SMILE program, based at URI and funded by grants and corporate donations, helps under-represented elementary, middle and high school students prepare to study science, technology, engineering and math in college. Students can join the program as early as fourth grade and continue through high school.
Back in 2014, Englander—a former teacher—and some Woonsocket teachers launched the Woonsocket project to teach students about design concepts in landscape architecture and, just as important, participate in a community project. The goal: To transform a muddy area where students wait for buses to a dry pathway.
The project stalled for several reasons. Mulch used as fill was inadequate, and vandals damaged many of the concrete pavers previously installed.
Englander turned to Angelo Simeoni, a professor of landscape architecture at URI, for advice. He recommended one of his best students—Anderson, who runs his own landscape architecture business, Will Anderson Garden Mentor.
“When I heard about the opportunity to help, I jumped,” says Anderson. “I wanted to give back. I wanted to do anything I could for these kids.”
He visited the site with Englander, teachers and administrators and came up with an architectural design and a list of materials, which were purchased by Englander’s organization.
The students and teachers worked April 24 and 25. “Everyone pitched in,” says Englander. “Even me. I brought shovels, trowels, work gloves, snacks.”
Using shovels and wheelbarrows, they put down more than 5 tons of stone dust and leveled the area with two-by-fours. Then they installed concrete pavers that the students had decorated with inspirational messages in their SMILE after-school clubs.
Anderson also imparted some wisdom about his profession. He explained the difference between a shovel and a spade, and he talked about the importance of properly leveling the ground.
“I don’t have kids and wasn’t sure if I could deal with kids that age, but, to my delight, I could,” he says. “I clicked with them and came away a better person.”
It’s been a tough few months for him, he says. His sister, Patricia Gouin, and mother, Cornelia Anderson, both died within a few months of each other. The project, he says, lifted him up in ways he never expected. “I’ve been floating in a sea of grief. This project saved me.”
Englander is grateful for his expertise and support.
“We couldn’t have done it without him,” she says. “He was wonderfully kind and patient with the students and organized them well. His contribution is a testament to the thriving collaboration between URI and the SMILE program.”
The program has 470 students in 22 clubs in six school districts, which, besides Woonsocket, are Central Falls, Pawtucket, Newport, South Kingstown and West Warwick. Students in the program for at least four years have a 95 percent high school graduation rate. Now, 80 alumni of the program attend URI, with 73 percent of them pursuing math and science majors. Since it started 22 years ago, the program has helped nearly 2,750 students.
Other projects have included a butterfly garden, also at Villa Nova and Hamlet schools; a flower garden at Chocolate Mills in Central Falls; and a plastic waste cleanup campaign at a Woonsocket elementary school. After-school science activities are a crucial part of the program. This year, students built wind turbines and gliders, took water samples to investigate the acidity of the ocean, and explored oxygen levels in local streams, among other activities.
“These projects are a wonderful way to keep students excited about science, technology, engineering and math,” says Englander. “We ignite the spark, and they carry that interest—and love for science—to college.”
For more information about SMILE, contact Englander at URI at 401-874-2036 or visit www.uri.edu/smile.
Pictured above: Before and after photos of a path students in the Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences program created at Villa Nova Middle School in Woonsocket. Photos by Carol Englander.