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By: Worcester Telegram – May 24, 2018

WORCESTER – For two weeks, volunteer efforts were rained out. And with Memorial Day fast approaching, Tatnuck Neighborhood Association President Paul R. Gunnerson was running out of time to spruce up the Whitaker Square Veterans Memorial in Tatnuck Square.

So this week Mr. Gunnerson turned to a perhaps unlikely group of volunteers: inmates at the Worcester County House of Correction.

“On short notice like that, I didn’t think it was going to work,” said Mr. Gunnerson. “But they’re a great, hardworking crew. Kudos to the sheriff for coming through.”

The Community Service Program of the Worcester County Sheriff’s Department provides cost-free labor by minimum-security inmates who have been convicted of a non-violent, non-firearms offense and have an exemplary record while incarcerated. Host organizations have to provide pnly materials for the project and coffee and lunches for the work crews.

Sheriff Lewis G. Evangelidis said the program – which he said has saved taxpayers $7 million in maintenance projects – enables municipalities to save money and also provides inmates with work experience and an opportunity to give back.

“Many of the inmates have never had a real job before and this gives inmates a skill, a sense of self worth and dignity, and that’s why I love the program,” Sheriff Evangelidis said.

Thursday morning, a crew of four inmates from the jail, two supervisors, Mr. Gunnerson and his wife, Martha, headed to the World War I monument in Tatnuck Square to pull weeds, plant flowers and spread mulch.

The circa 1927 monument commemorates the patriotism of those from Tatnuck who served in World War I, and is in memory of Pvt. Herbert O. Whitaker, who was killed in action at Belleau Wood, France, on July 18, 1918. Mr. Gunnerson has provided for the monument’s care since the late 1990s, when he petitioned the city council to adopt, restore and maintain the monument.

“It was an eyesore,” Mr. Gunnerson said. “It certainly was not a good first impression of the city of Worcester.”

So the Gunnersons and other volunteers transformed a concrete traffic island surrounding the memorial into a perennial garden.

“I compare it to how a butterfly emerges from a cocoon,” Mr. Gunnerson said.

But many of those original volunteers have died or are too old to offer much assistance, Mr. Gunnerson said. And the weather the past two Saturdays canceled volunteer efforts to fix up the plantings after a long winter of debris and snowplow damage.

So Mr. Gunnerson went to the sheriff’s office for help. Meanwhile, local businesses donated supplies. Howes Farm and Garden Center in Paxton donated plants and Sam Rosario Construction delivered mulch.

“It’s good; it’s helping convicts give back and step back into society instead of just opening the doors and letting us go,” said an inmate who gave his name only as Billy, 30, from Fitchburg. “If they didn’t have this program we’d be locked in our cells. There would be no rehabilitation if it wasn’t for this program.”

And Mr. Gunnerson was appreciative. The workers removed 30 bags of weeds and a truckload of sticks and debris, planted 25 pots of plants, and spread four loads of bark mulch.

“There’s a heck of a lot of transformation involved, and an awful lot of hard work from individuals and donations from businesses,” said Mr. Gunnerson. “I’m very overwhelmed and grateful. I couldn’t have hoped for it to be this good.”