‘We’d see who could dig out the meanest stump, or yank out the biggest root’
“Watch out, watch out, it’s going that way!” Chazz Gatewood shouts to five fellow workers entangled in a rope tug-of-war with a teetering tree cut in two by David Dill with a chainsaw.
Safely wrested to the ground with a loud thump, Dill wastes no time slicing the trunk into sections to be hauled away by hand before skies open up and turn Rappahannock County Park into a spongy bog.
The supervisor of the park’s restoration project, Torney Van Acker, smiles his approval with the Friday morning progress.
The last of dripping tree limbs carried on mud-stained shoulders to a nearby debris trailer, the nine workers — wearing identical yellow prisoner uniforms and monitored by two guards from the RSW Regional Jail — duck out of the rain into the shelter of the park’s pavilion, where hamburgers and hot dogs are sizzling on the grill.
“It’s like working alongside any group of motivated workers — you have a common task and you get to it,” insists Van Acker, who given this year’s previous park clean-up projects has cultivated a most remarkable relationship with the RWS inmates.
“Working in the trenches together allowed me to get to know them better, helped me to see them as human beings with dignity and allowed us to develop a rapport similar to what many develop in the military,” says Van Acker.
“These guys are as eager to get at the work as I am and they really put their hearts in it, even if the work is sometimes unpleasant,” he continues. “After two months of working together, we have become a real team. Some of them even expressed their hope to come back and work together in the fall.”
A tireless hands-on member of the Rappahannock County Recreational Facilities Authority (RCRFA), Van Acker is a retired electrical engineer and capital projects development manager who has owned farm property in the county since 2002 and became a full-time resident in 2016. He grew up on a dairy farm in northwest New Jersey, an area that closely resembles Rappahannock. His passion is organic farming and gardening, sustainable land use, and as a member of the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection dark skies preservation.
Thanks in large part to Van Acker, the 7-plus acre park bordering Route 211, the county seat of Washington and the Rush River — featuring woodlands, nature trails, open spaces and myriad recreational facilities — was awarded International Dark Sky Park “Silver Tier” designation last month by the International Dark-Sky Association, the third park of its kind in the nation to receive such recognition.
“I’ve got chicken here in the cooler if you want to throw it on the grill,” the park official tells Dill, who has segued from chainsaw to spatula duty. Listening to the banter between Van Acker and the inmates — who eagerly volunteer for the ongoing park restoration project — you’d think he was returning with them in the prisoner van to Front Royal.
“It took a few days working beside them in the trenches for them to see that I was ‘real’. It also helped that I called them by their first names and treated them to my wife’s homemade chocolate chip cookies every day during rest breaks,” he quips. “They opened up and relationships flourished.
“We’d see who could dig out the meanest stump, or yank out the biggest root, or pull down the thickest vine hung up in the trees. Never heard any complaining. One guy finished his prison term during our work program, but came back to the park as a free man to see all of us. Meant a lot to me!”
In fact, you almost couldn’t pay professional landscapers to accomplish what these prisoners have of late for Rappahannock County.
“I think the current state of the cleared areas of the park speaks volumes about the quality of work,” Van Acker agrees. “They contributed over 500 man-hours of service, not to mention providing necessary equipment and skills. Without them, we would not be where we are today.”