By Samantha Hawkins
For The Diamondback

Two-year-old Elya Stratton wore her dad’s oversized yellow “Good Neighbor Day” T-shirt as she helped to pat dirt around new plants at Lake Artemesia on Saturday.

Stratton was one of about 900 volunteers at College Park’s 8th annual Good Neighbor Day, a yearly effort to help beautify the city.

“She wanted to come out and have a good time too,” said her dad, Jeremy Stratton, an MBA student at the University of Maryland, who joined 160 volunteers at Lake Artemesia. They completed tasks from planting shrubs that have winter berries to feed migratory birds that pass by the lake on their way south in the fall, to ridding the shoreline of invasive species of plants.

“I enjoy giving back,” Stratton said. “The social aspect is critically important too—to interact with people in the community.”

Prince George’s County park ranger Brooke Westby has been on the Good Neighbor Day committee since its beginning and led the coordinating effort at the lake.

[Read more: College Park pushes through tragedy to turn out record numbers at Good Neighbor Day]

“This is not easy work,” Westby said. “But when you have this many people, it’s amazing what you can get done.”

Students, faculty, community members and Mayor Patrick Wojahn joined in the more than 20 service projects around the city, ranging from meal packing to painting a patterned mural at the Route 1 underpass.

“This event really shows us what the university can do for our community because we have hundreds of volunteers from the university,” Wojahn said to the crowd, many wearing the same yellow T-shirts as Elya Stratton, at the College Park Community Center for the opening ceremonies Saturday morning.

“It’s gotten bigger and bigger each year,” said Sarah D’Alexander, the lead coordinator of Maryland’s community engagement office, who has seen the event grow from 50 volunteers in 2012 to nearly 1,000 seven years later.

D’Alexander said most of the projects were selected by a committee of 40 university affiliates, police officers, park rangers and College Park employees. The committee also asked for recommendations for other projects in the area.

“The determination to give back is really rewarding,”  she said. “Next year we’re going to be fine-tuning some of the logistics to accommodate everyone.”

Later in the morning, another group of volunteers put the finishing touches on new landscaping at Paint Branch Elementary School, including 240 new plants.

One of the volunteers, Priest Amen, is a first grade teacher at Paint Branch and co-leader of the school’s Green Team, an after-school program that teaches students how to live a more sustainable lifestyle.

“I’m interested in our food sources, but this beautification is great—people are really into seeing life grow,” said Amen, who has started a garden at Howard University, a greenhouse in Southeast D.C. and a farm in Greenbelt.

Luis Alfonzo, a horticulturist at this university’s Arboretum & Botanical Garden, said the landscaping work would have cost the school $20,000 to complete, but thanks to donations from the university and College Park, volunteers were able to complete the project without costing the Paint Branch Elementary any money.

“It’s something that the community gave to the school,” said Alfonzo.

In past years, Good Neighbor Day was able to bring all of the volunteers back to the community center for lunch after they completed their service projects. This year, there were too many volunteers to provide food and transportation for everyone.

“These are things we have to be conscious about to be more sustainable,” said Gloria Aparicio Blackwell, director of the Office of Community Engagement. “I like to see people coming back and telling their stories but I saw interactions that made me excited to be a part of this and a part of this community.”