Ask Astoria High School graduating senior Brandi Falconer about her senior project, and she'll be honest.
"At first I wasn't really looking forward to it," she reflects. She works after school at Fultano's Pizza and did much of her school project on nights and weekends.
Her mother, Kim Falconer, had inspired her to give the headstones at Astoria's Pioneer Cemetery a good clean, restoring the sparkling white surfaces as they were installed about 200 years ago.
After picking up the scrub brush and the right cleaning materials and getting to work, the transformation of the Carrera marble and granite stones from cement-colored gray to luminous ivory was enough to change her mind.
"Once I started and saw the results, the project was well worth it," Falconer said. She spent about 35 hours scouring the 25 stones that rise from the grassy hilltop.
At Astoria High School, the senior project begins the summer after junior year, when students meet with senior project coordinator Colleen Tilley to figure out what they'll focus on.
Tilley helps the students find a meaningful project that balances civic and community engagement while tapping into areas that they're individually passionate about. For some, the first idea isn't a fit - and that's OK, she said.
"If you're not excited about your senior project then you haven't found the right project," Tilley said.
This year, 120 seniors did community service-oriented projects, giving at least 20 hours of their time toward an idea that helps them learn about possible careers, organization and public speaking.
In the last eight years of her more than 30 years working for the district, Tilley has shifted to guiding the seniors through their projects. She's still amazed at the scale and impact their work can have.
"The kids just blow me away every year and that's why I continue," she said. About half of the seniors, like Falconer, are already working part-time jobs, and have to shuffle summer and school-year schedules to make sure they can get all the components of the project completed in time. Each student chooses a mentor to meet with them regularly and verify their hours.
And projects must connect real-life experiences in the workplace with classroom learning, to be presented at the student's final presentation. For Falconer, working with the city of Astoria's parks maintenance supervisor Dick Magathan provided the opportunity, as she had to find out just what kind of cleaning solution to use on the cement-gray stones to turn them white.
Magathan was grateful for Falconer's efforts, and said the job - which hasn't been tackled in his 27 years with the city - wouldn't have been done without her.
"It's the kind of thing we don't get to because we're short-staffed. That kind of project really helps us out," he said.
Another project builds much-needed wallSeniors Rick Sarin and Jake Hatcher also worked with the city on their project - building a two-tier retaining wall at the high school's Ernie Aiken baseball field.
The pair clocked more than 150 hours, starting last summer with the lengthy permitting process. They spent about 10 hours just on the paperwork, before ever breaking ground.
The idea come from Mike Sarin of Big River Excavating, Rick's dad. The pair also got help from Jim Hatcher, Jake's father, who works for the city's Public Works department.
The group used excavators, dump trucks, shovels and rakes to cut the ground back and backfill it with rock to prepare the sloping surface for the wall, Rick Sarin said. By the time the permits were ready, the new year had passed and weather wasn't optimal, he added.
"It was very cold and wet," Sarin said. They got to work nonetheless, hoping to finish before baseball season began.
Another challenging part was to get both tiers to curve at exactly the same angle, which required them to cut many of the blocks down to fit together like puzzle pieces, Jake Hatcher said. But the result was well worth the effort to create a place for bleachers and wheelchair access for games, he added.
"I've heard from a lot of adults who have come up and said, 'Good job!' and 'It looks great,'" Hatcher said. He will be playing football at Western Oregon State University in the fall.
Both are proud to have finished a project they can be proud of for years to come.
"It is nice to give back to the community and high school sports because they've helped us a lot," Hatcher reflected.