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United Way Youths Dig Into Taltree Gardens

Hannah Wozniak dug into the soil at Taltree Arboretum & Gardens, pulling up weeds near a parking lot.

The Wheeler High School junior was among nearly 200 students from area schools who got out of bed early Saturday to spruce up Taltree as part of the annual United Way Youth Day of Caring.

“I like to volunteer,” Wozniak said. “I used to come here (to Taltree) when I was little.”

Located at 450 West 100 North in Valparaiso, Taltree was established as a nonprofit foundation in 1998 by Damien and Rita Gabis.

It includes 360 acres of woody plant collections, formal gardens, woodlands, wetlands and prairies. More than 4 miles of hiking trails offer views of the natural biodiversity of the landscape.

“It's wonderful for kids to see we have this amazing resource in Porter County,” said Sharon Kish, president of United Way of Porter County.

Taltree co-founder Rita Gabis, who weeded alongside the students, called their visit “uplifting.”

“They're so enthusiastic,” she said. “I hope they will consider coming back.”

Stephanie Heyer, director of operations with Taltree, said the students worked on a variety of projects, including invasive plant removal, mulching of trails and weeding of gardens.

For their efforts, they were treated to a cookout provided by the Valparaiso Walmart.

Heyer said Taltree relies on volunteers to get as much work done as possible.

“We have such a small staff,” she said. “The progress they can make in just a couple hours would take us weeks.”

Mackenna Dickt, volunteer coordinator with United Way of Porter County, said this year's Day of Caring drew students from Wheeler, Portage, Valparaiso, Hobart, Merrillville and Andrean High School. They included members of the United Way's Power of Youth Council.

Valparaiso High School juniors Emily Singer and Mona Sehgal were participating as part of their environmental science class.

Sehgal said the event was a great way to learn more about her classmates and meet students from other schools.

“It's a good way to bring our region and schools closer together,” she said.

For more information about Taltree, call (219) 462-0025 or visit

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