BELTON — Third grade students from Leon Heights Elementary along with staff and their Adopt-A-School unit, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, joined together to beautify the school’s courtyard and garden.

Kristie Blattner, third grade teacher, led the collaborative effort to make the overgrown and neglected green space aesthetically pleasing and educationally interactive.

“A school garden is a great way to educate students on the importance of environmental and community stewardship,” Blattner said. “In this process, the students have become engaged and aware of the impact they have on the environment and school culture.”

Students, staff and Soldiers from 2-5 Cav., 1st  BCT, collectively volunteered 72 hours pulling weeds, removing and transplanting plants, planting new flowers and creating a salsa garden with tomatoes, bell peppers and onions.

“It was really messy, but then when we started fixing it. Now we can enjoy the gardens and see what’s in them,” Brady Skaggs, a third grader, said. “We got to have fun with the Army people and help out the environment.”

Their hard work earned Leon Heights Elementary recognition, by Fort Hood, Killeen and Copperas Cove representatives from the Cen-Tex Sustainable Communities Partnership and the School Liaison Office Adopt-A-School Program, as  the winner of the School Beautification Challenge and $200 grand prize award at a ceremony May 21.

“We appreciate the partnership with Fort Hood and the community, and are proud of Leon Heights Elementary and all the students that participated,” Dr. Susan Kincannon, superintendent, Belton Independent School District, said. “It’s a great opportunity for our kids to get to learn a little bit of science, have a place they can go out and read and enjoy nature.”

The beautification challenge is one of the many initiatives of the Youth Environmental Ambassadors! Program that promotes community service and sustainability in schools within the Greater Fort Hood Area.

“These community service initiatives allow Soldiers the opportunity to get to know the community they serve,” 2nd Lt. Robert Lindley, Adopt-A-School unit representative, 2-5 Cav., 1st BCT, said. “The Lancers hope to provide students at Leon Heights pride in their community and a passion to help others.

“It was nice to have the Soldiers here,” Lillie Cook, a third grader, said. “It made me feel good to know that we make the garden so beautiful and the world a better place.”

Lt. Col. Neil Hollenbeck, commander, 2-5 Cav., 1st BCT, explained how the Adopt-A-School program adds value and mutual benefits to both the students and Soldiers.

“When you are engaged in the day to day grind of making a combat unit ready to fight and keeping it ready to fight, you can sometimes forget where you came from and what it was like to be a kid,” Hollenbeck said. “Putting Soldiers directly in contact with the people they’re protecting, helps them to come back to work with a different mindset. It reminds us why we do, what we do.”

Although helping the school is important, Blattner sees the unit and school relationship as a chance to inspire and support each other.

 “The unit has had such an active role in our school and community this year that the kids look forward to seeing the Soldiers and doing things with them,” Blattner said. “It is important for our students and our Soldiers to know that they are not alone and we are in it together.”

For more information about YEA!, visit Facebook.com/FortHoodRecycle, or email CenTexYEA@outlook.com.