Marines help clean up local school


It took a full offensive assault to clean up the old school, but when the job was done, Poplar Elementary was once again the pride of its neighborhood.

Marines stationed at Twentynine Palms drove nearly 200 miles round trip last Friday to help students, teachers, parents and volunteers pull weeds, pick up trash, and plant flowers.

They also tended a garden and painted murals at the kindergarten through fifth grade school, which is located in southwestern Fontana.

But this wasn't the first time the Marines have made the long road trip. They've been coming to Poplar to help out at the school since 2006. And, there's another more personal reason: To honor one of their fallen comrades.

Kathy Baucus teaches fourth grade at Poplar. Her husband, Phillip, a Marine, lost his life in Iraq in 2006.

Since then, many of the Marines who served with Phillip make the trip to Poplar in his honor.

“Phillip was with my company,” said First Sergeant Willie Ward. “That's how our relationship started with the school. We want to have a positive influence on the students and pay tribute to our fallen Marine.”

Painted murals, building a garden trellis, and planting flowers -- not typical military duties for battle-tested Iraq veterans. But to a man, they said they enjoy their time with the kids.

“Coming here gives the community and the kids a different view of the Marine Corps,” said Sgt. Edgar Figueroa. “They see that we do much more than fight with weapons.”

Throughout the day, youngsters and adults formed teams to get the work done. Third grade teachers Shayne Riggs and Elaine Phelan laid the plans for planting and tending to the school's garden, and painting murals.

Riggs has taught at Poplar for 12 years. In 2006 he requested and received grants totaling $7,500 from the Chino Valley Utility Agency. And he has put the money to wise use.

The school has embraced water and energy conservation because of his efforts. “Our plants are indigenous to California; they're native,” he said. “We have sagebrush and flowering plants that attract birds, insects and butterflies to the garden. We need to conserve our precious water.”

Phelan designed and then sketched murals on the outside walls of classrooms. Then she, the Marines, and volunteers began painting. There are several brightly-colored and life-like murals including a barnyard scene, sports ball wall, and a Dream For The Future mural to inspire children to read, learn and study.

In the garden area, students picked weeds and helped first grade teacher Marianne Shaffer plant an herb garden. Shaffer said that when the garden is finished, it will flourish with vegetables, herbs and perennial plants.

Parents also pitched in.

Rudy and Sara Najar painted a concrete trash receptacle together in blues, reds and yellows. The couple moved from Los Angeles to Fontana to give their children, Rosemary, 6, a first grader, and Ruby, 3, better educations.

“A lot of the schools are run- down in L.A.,” said Rudy. “The school district (Fontana Unified) is one of the reasons we moved here. This is a good school. It feels great to help shine it up.”

In front of the school, First Sergeant Ward dug holes and tilled dirt to plant flowers and shrubbery. He had plenty of help from some youngsters who followed him around like the pied piper.

Fifth grader Christopher Lim listened to Ward's instructions as he planted a cluster of white and pink flowers. “I like being with the Marines,” said Christopher. “They are fun.”

“We've established a bond, a mentorship here,” said Ward. “Next time we come we would like to bring more Marines.”

Kathy Baucus treasures the honor and the tribute that the Marines have shown her late husband. And she admires the Marines for the close bond they have nurtured with the kids since their visits began in 2006.

“The Marines talk to the kids about patriotism, about their job duties,” said Baucus. “They are good role models and the kids think of them as heroes. The Marine Corps is very much a family to us.”