RSW pris­on­ers, county board mem­ber get down and dirty as a team

‘We’d see who could dig out the mean­est stump, or yank out the big­gest root’

Rappahannock News - - FRONT PAGE - By John Mc­caslin Rap­pa­han­nock News staff

“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 DarkSky 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.”

BY JOHN MC­CASLIN

RSW Re­gional Jail pris­oner David Dill mans a chain­saw this past Fri­day at Rap­pa­han­nock County Park.

Five pris­on­ers are seen here in a tug-of-war with a large tree trunk.

Rap­pa­han­nock County Park of­fi­cial Tor­ney Van Acker, in be­tween two pris­on­ers that in­clude Chazz Gate­wood in the or­ange cap, roll a tree trunk to the side of a park trail.

PHO­TOS BY JOHN MC­CASLIN

RSW Re­gional Jail in­mate David Dill grills up some ham­burg­ers and hot dogs for the prison crew.

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