The sky was gloomy and overcast when Rebecca Zemaitis first saw the vacant overgrown lot along Market Street in Harrisburg.
“It was kind of disheartening,” recalled the 17-year-old senior at Cedar Cliff High School. The project wasn’t looking good at all.
The staff of the Shalom House wanted to rejuvenate the idea of a community garden to benefit the residents of the women’s shelter and the local neighborhood.
Zemaitis was looking to take on a cause to earn her Gold Award, the Girl Scout equivalent of the Eagle in the Boy Scouts. And Troop 21680 had done service work for the Shalom House before.
She was eager for a challenge, even one that involved weeks of directing volunteers to clear away weeds and tall grass before rebuilding the raised garden beds that had fallen into disrepair.
“We worked with what they had,” Zemaitis said. “We worked two hours every Saturday.”
Volunteers included not only troop members, but Shalom House staff and the women housed in the shelter. Neighbors pitched in along with other community volunteers.
To earn her Gold Award, Zemaitis not only had to recruit and coordinate this labor, but organize the effort to line up sponsors and raise money for plants and materials.
Her project started on a bleak day this past spring when she visited the overgrown lot with Shalom House staff and realized the amount of work that was ahead.
Rather than be discouraged, she stepped up as a leader and soon the raised beds were ready for a load of fresh soil. Ideas were suggested on what plants to grow and before too long there were vegetables for the women and children of the shelter to take care of and harvest.
The shelter residents even received tips on gardening from Zemaitis, a green thumb since middle school. In her, a life lesson took bloom.
“I learned you can really make an impact if you put yourself out there,” the teenager said.
For Zemaitis, the seeds of service took root years ago.
Growing up, she used to go with her father to the Allegheny Valley School in Hummelstown where he worked as a house manager. The school provides services to people with all levels of intellectual and developmental disabilities.
From that, Zemaitis developed an interest in helping others that carried over into high school when she became a member of the Friends Forever Club, where regular education students are paired with special needs students.
By interacting and socializing with the students, club members help them feel comfortable and cope with the challenges of high school. Club members also volunteer at schoolwide and regional Special Olympics events. Zemaitis is a Special Olympics tennis coach.
“I’ve always loved being outside,” she said. A love of gardening that started in middle school has turned into the serious pursuit of studies in environmental science and the desire to do field work.
“There are many different routes for environmental science,” Zemaitis said. “There are many different ways I could have a career.”
Though she plans to go to college, she has not decided whether to focus on environmental science, social work or special education. She may double major or major/minor in either field.
Either way, she wants to be out among people and not confined to a lab or a desk.