Students Assist on the Roanoke

Halifax natives experience a different side of their county

Story Highlights
  • KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Gaston College Preparatory juniors Erica Patterson, Alex Hopkas and Casey Hollowell spent a week this fall working on the Roanoke River

“These are bright kids. Sure, it involved a whole week of work, but that’s nothing compared to having the ability to affect three young people at this point in their lives.”
~ Chuck Peoples, TNC Roanoke River Project Director

Erica Patterson pretty much thought that she had already seen the most rural places that Halifax County has to offer. But, the 16-year old changed her mind after volunteering with The Nature Conservancy. “I thought Tillery was the boonies,” she said. “But, I was wrong.”

Patterson is a junior at KIPP Gaston College Preparatory. She and fellow KIPP juniors 16-year old Alex Hopkas and 17-year old Casey Hollowell spent a week this fall, working with the Conservancy’s Northeast North Carolina Project Director Chuck Peoples.
“We are not going to traverse the county today,” Peoples assured the three as they headed out to remove invasive plants from the Conservancy’s Big Oak Woods Preserve on the Roanoke River.

“No skin, just cuffs,” Peoples reminded the three, handing Erica a can of insect repellant.

“We’re already looking out for each other,” Casey said, as she sprayed Erica’s pants.

Taking care of each other and caring about their backyard is part of the lessons the three are learning at KIPP, which is an acronym for Knowledge is Power Program. The charter school was founded in 2001 with 80 students. Today, there are more than 600 students in the school. It is ranked as one of the state’s highest performing public schools. Admission to college is required for a student to graduate from KIPP.
Hollowell, Hopkas and Patterson aren’t totally sure where they want to go to college or what they want to study, but all three say helping people is an important part of what they want to be about as adults. Erica wants to major in biology or zoology, although she might be interested in doing social services with animals. Alex thinks he wants to go to medical school and become an anesthesiologist. Casey is less sure. “I’ve still got a lot more colleges to explore,” she explained.

Even though the three have either grown up in or lived in Halifax County for some time, they discovered during their experience with Peoples that there is a lot they didn’t know about their rural backyard.

“What kind of turkey was this?” asked Peoples as he pointed to a pile of turkey poop.

“Female?” responds Erica.

“That’s right,” says Peoples. “Male turkey poop is J-shaped.  This corkscrew shape, that’s a female.”

But, their work went well beyond turkey poop identification. With just a couple of days in the woods and instruction from Peoples, the three were readily identifying privet – a nonnative invasive species that is particularly destructive in natural areas like Big Oak Woods. “Here’s one,” says Erica, grasping a small privet plant and pulling it out with a grin.

“We’re going to take our time and work our way through the patch,” Peoples explains. “Erica you tie this tape around the privet you find. Alex you cut it, and Casey you record the location on the GPS.”

The three worked their way through the privet. “I’ll come back next spring and see how this treatment pans out,” Peoples explained. “There is such a small amount on this preserve that you have probably made a real difference in knocking it back.”

In addition to invasive removal, the students also cleaned camping platforms along the Roanoke and helped Peoples monitor a conservation easement. Peoples, who runs a one-man Conservancy office in Halifax, said that it was time well spent. “These are bright kids. Sure, it involved a whole week of work, but that’s nothing compared to having the ability to affect three young people at this point in their lives.”

As for the students, the best lesson they may have gotten was just being with Peoples. “He is passionate about his work,” said Alex appreciatively with Peoples out of earshot.

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