Aaliyah Popp, 16, sorts clothes for young children June 13 at Rare Breed Youth Services. She and her mother were part of a team of volunteers from American Products taking part in United Way Day of Caring. (Photo by Joe Hadsall)

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When Cynthia Roderique watched the blade from a cordless pruner snap through a branch, her eyes lit up.

Once she got the battery-powered garden tool in her hand and used it to remove some dead branches, she smiled.

“I wouldn’t be able to do all this otherwise,” Roderique said, gesturing to several bushes, all with significant numbers of dead branches in need of removal. “And definitely not as fast.”

Cynthia Roderique uses battery-powered pruners to chew through dead limbs Thursday at WaterWise Garden. (Photo by Joe Hadsall)

Roderique was one of an estimated 1,400 volunteers who rolled up their sleeves and helped non-profit groups during the United Way of the Ozarks’ Day of Caring on June 13. In its 32nd year, organizers say it is the largest single-day event of its kind.

More than 1,400 people across the Springfield metro area signed up for the annual day of service, said Mary Sue Hoban, director of communication and engagement for United Way of the Ozarks. They worked on 121 projects listed by 42 non-profit groups at 53 locations, she said.

“Project sites are located from Fair Grove to Branson, Brookline to Rogersville, with most located in Springfield,” Hoban said. “Projects cover a wide spectrum of indoor and outdoor needs, including painting, landscaping, supply packing, cleaning, assembly, donation sorting, vehicle detailing and more.”

Emma Turner, a volunteer from the Assemblies of God headquarters, leans to paint part of the gazebo's ceiling trim June 13 at WaterWise Garden. (Photo by Joe Hadsall)

Roderique is a member of the Greene County chapter of Missouri Master Gardeners. Several of her fellow gardeners, as well as volunteers with the City of Springfield, Missouri State University and Assemblies of God headquarters left plenty of elbow grease at WaterWise Garden, located at National Avenue and Linwood Street near the Springfield Art Museum.

In addition to general maintenance of the garden’s beds, they applied mulch to paths, painted a gazebo and shed and other big tasks. The work was one of many available to volunteers as part of the United Way’s Day of Caring.

Nicholas Cloyd, chair of the WaterWise Garden committee, said he was grateful for all the help.

“We are getting a ton done, and it is a huge help,” Cloyd said. “The work can be a lot for just the master gardeners to manage, and having some outside help today is getting some things done that have needed to be done for a while. It’s about making the garden beautiful so that people can enjoy it.”

Roni Cole (left) and Jerry Burnett, of American Products, place new mulch June 13 in landscaping at Rare Breed Youth Services. (Photo by Joe Hadsall)

Many companies form teams of volunteers for United Way Day of Caring, Hoban said, and pay their employees their regular wages to take part in the day doing community service work.

One of those companies was American Products, a manufacturer based in Strafford. Some employees and their family members helped at Rare Breed Youth Services, a youth outreach center managed by The Kitchen, Inc.

Volunteers there worked outside and inside. About a dozen people applied mulch and cleaned up landscaping areas, and they helped sort donated items and clean on the inside.

Having all the help meant a lot to the staff at the center. Sara Opolka, development coordinator for The Kitchen, said that all the sorting and cleaning helps the Rare Breed staff keep a calming, organized environment — important for the youth who are dealing with stressful situations or emotional crises.

Autume Amaro (right) and Jessica Cole, of American Products, sort through donations Thursday at Rare Breed Youth Services. (Photo by Joe Hadsall)

Rare Breed works with homeless and at-risk young people 13 to 24 years old, offering instant access to basic needs and fast access to community services, and working to help them build secure, independent lives.

“We try to make it feel like home for them,” Opolka said. “Everything that the volunteers are doing helps reinforce that dignity and purpose that we try to instill in our youth here.”

The Day of Caring started with a breakfast at the Springfield Cardinals’ training facility. Food for the breakfast was donated by community partners, Hoban said. The event is also made possible by community businesses and other donors, who help keep participation free for both volunteers and non-profits.

Joe Hadsall

Joe Hadsall is the education reporter for the Hauxeda. Hadsall has more than two decades of experience reporting in the Ozarks with the Joplin Globe, Christian County Headliner News and 417 Magazine. Contact him at (417) 837-3671 or jhadsall@hauxeda.com. More by Joe Hadsall