STOYSTOWN — On Sept. 11, 2001, Debbie Kuntz was working as a school counselor. She spent the day helping students use the phone to reach parents — many of whom worked as pilots, flight attendants and other airline employees.
“It was a long and trying day for all,” she said.
Now a Penn State Extension Master Gardener in Beaver County, Kuntz recently volunteered to assist a cleanup effort at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Somerset County — the area in which one of the four hijacked planes crashed after the passengers and crew tried to regain control.
Around 100 Master Gardeners and alumni from Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences and College of Education, plus 10 National Park Service staff members, assembled in August at the historic site to beautify the grounds. They spent the day weeding, pruning and removing plant debris.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to help at that sacred place,” Kuntz said.
The 1,500-acre memorial features a plaza, the Tower of Voices — a 93-foot-tall musical instrument holding 40 wind chimes representing the 40 passengers and crew members — the Wall of Names, and a private area for the families. Volunteers play an Instrumental role in maintaining the landscape.
This was the second year of the cleanup effort. Area Master Gardener Coordinator Valerie Sesler, whose region includes Somerset County, helped organize the event.
“Working with the Master Gardeners and arborists again this year on this project continues to be a highlight of my year,” she said. “The addition of Penn State alumni made this year even more special. It has been an honor volunteering at Flight 93 to remember the ones who died and their families that remain.”
Stephen Clark, superintendent of the National Parks of Western Pennsylvania, spoke to the group during lunch and shared the history of Flight 93.
“I had never been to the Flight 93 Memorial, and it was humbling to be there and listen to Superintendent Clark’s description of the flight,” said Michelle Baker, Master Gardener from Center County. “I didn’t realize how much audio they had from the plane, and it was painful and inspiring to hear what the passengers and crew did to stop the hijackers. Flight 93 Memorial, even in a small way.”
The event was a collaboration between the College of Agricultural Sciences, the College of Education and Master Gardeners. Over the winter, the Master Gardener program offered a three-part webinar series on horticultural topics for alumni, which culminated in this day of service at the memorial.
“We are thrilled to partner with the Master Gardener program to engage alumni from our respective colleges by offering a unique and meaningful service project at the Flight 93 National Memorial,” Stefanie Tomlinson, assistant director of alumni relations in the College of Education, and Kelly Praskovich, associate director of alumni relations in the College of Agricultural Sciences, said in a joint statement. “It was both humbling and inspiring to connect with volunteers at a location that preserves, protects and shares the stories of one of the most important days in our nation’s history.”
Brent Hales, associate dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences and director of Penn State Extension, attended and spoke to the group.
Two arborists volunteered to prune trees, including Jim Savage, assistant teaching professor of horticulture in the college.
In addition to Sesler, Tomlinson and Praskovich, organizers included Molly Sturniolo, Master Gardener coordinator for Center County, and Tara Mondock, Penn State Extension associate director for client relations.
Many Master Gardeners said they plan to return next year if the event continues.
“To be trusted to help maintain this sacred space was an absolute honor,” said Shelly BouSamra, Master Gardener from Allegheny County.
Alane Timmerman, Master Gardener from Blair County, said, “Working alongside Master Gardeners from other counties made me feel like I was part of something valuable that was bigger than me, which defines why I volunteer.”