300 volunteers toil to improve Sunset High grounds in honor of fallen soldier John Alexander Pelham

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Olivia Rohret, Sunset High School junior, shovels dirt on a path that will lead to the school's track during the school's service day in honor of Sunset grad Army Spc. John A. Pelham.As he considered all the projects tackled and completed on Saturday morning at Sunset High School in honor of his son John, Wendell Pelham was overwhelmed with a sense of community spirit and engagement.

“This is probably the most worthwhile service project I’ve ever been a part of, and that’s not just because my son’s name is on it,” he said near the school’s running track early Saturday afternoon. “For people to give up their day for service projects reminds me of something that’s been lost in some communities.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Parent-volunteer Michael Hansen wipes away debris around a plaque that memorializes Sunset High School students Cathy Zubryk and Curran Phillips, who died in 1989.

About 300 volunteers gathered at the school at 13840 N.W. Cornell Road beginning at 8 a.m. to engage in projects ranging from building a pathway from the parking lot to the track to filling care packages for U.S. soldiers serving in Afghanistan. “Live Like John — Specialist John Pelham Memorial Service Day,” the school’s third annual service day was dedicated to U.S. Army Spc. John Alexander Pelham, a 2010 Sunset graduate who was killed in combat in Afghanistan on Feb. 12.

Completed with 900 volunteer hours and contributions from a dozen local businesses and organizations on Saturday, the projects included:

  • Constructing a 220-foot-long pathway from the student parking lot to the track.

  • Designing, building and installing an arch entrance over the path to the track.

  • Planting trees near the track.

  • Gathering supplies and assembling care packages for active military personnel.

  • Completing improvements to the school’s central courtyard area, including extensive landscaping and installing donated tables and chairs.

  • Painting the interior of the concession stand.
  • Tracy Nordyke, a member of the Community Engagement Committee at Sunset, noted the memory of John Pelham — a versatile Sunset Apollo athlete — made this year’s event something special.

    “We do this every year,” she said. “This year it took on a whole new component when we connected with the Pelham family.”

    Volunteers working to fill nearly 20 care boxes with requested items from coffee to hand sanitizer donated by Walmart and others, added 300 handwritten thank-you notes as a finishing touch. The packages will be distributed at an upcoming pre-deployment event for two Oregon National Guard units in Seaside.

    “We had a lot of help from students and people directly connected to the Pelham family,” Nordyke said, noting Oregon 1st District U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici was among them earlier on Saturday. “They’re going to active duty personnel at a Yellow Ribbon event.”

    Showing off the central courtyard, which is now lushly landscaped with azaleas, rhododendrons, ferns, day lillies and Japanese maples, Sunset Principal John Huelskamp, said the service day marked the end of a three-year improvement effort for the outdoor gathering space.

    “It opens the whole area up,” he said, noting the courtyard was rarely used in its more recent incarnation. “It’s really nice now. I can’t get over it.”

    He credited the can-do spirit of the service day to the sense of family that’s always been part of the Sunset High community, an aspect that intensifies in the wake of TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Tracy Nordyke, a member of the Community Engagement Committee at Sunset High School, shows the care boxes full of of goodies that will be sent to an upcoming pre-deployment event for two Oregon National Guard units in Seaside.

    “As in a family, we step forward when one of us goes downhill, or in John’s case, gives the ultimate sacrifice,” the principal said. “(John Pelham) was incredibly giving as a human being, which was shown through his final act of sacrifice.”

    Joined by his wife, children and granddaughters at his first Service Day at Sunset, Wendell Pelham, also a Sunset alumnus, expressed his gratitude to those gathered in John’s honor during a ceremony just after lunch on Saturday.

    “I can’t begin to tell you how grateful we are,” he said. “For people to take time out of their lives to help beautify this beautiful school, we’re honored to be Apollos.”

    He stressed the importance of giving something back to the community whether or not it involves donning a military uniform.

    “You don’t have to be a soldier to serve. Each of us has the ability and should go out and serve every chance we have,” he said.

    As she spread fine gravel along the base of the pathway to the track, Anna Stember, president of Sunset High’s junior class, said she was happy to contribute part of her weekend to improving the school and honoring a distinguished alum.

    “It’s really awesome to see the whole community come together,” she said. “You end up talking to a lot of people you don’t normally talk to. This is for someone who did something good for our country.”

    Savanna Budzinski, a fellow junior and member of the Sunset Leadership team, was impressed with the turnout on Saturday, along with the sheer amount of work completed.

    “I just think it’s really humbling that people would take time out of their day to improve the school and honor John,” she said. “It’s really cool to see.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Michael Armatage, Joe Peterson, Ed Turnquist and Thommy Shaiger push a compactor on a trail that will lead to Sunset High School's track that volunteers made during the school's service day in honor of Sunset grad Army Spc. John A. Pelham.

    On the wall

    What: Ceremony to honor John Alexander Pelham, a U.S. Army specialist killed in Afghanistan on Feb. 12.

    Where: Veterans Memorial Park in Cornelius, 1251 Baseline St.

    The Wall: Lists military veterans from Washington County killed or missing in action since World War II.

    Goal: Area residents are invited to support the Pelham family and learn more about John’s life and the ultimate sacrifice he made in service to his country.

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