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Stand up and salute this tradition

Mill Creek High School isn't very old. But in a short time the school's football program has developed a neat tradition that doesn't have anything to do with the helmets and pads, and everything to do with building character and comaradiere.

On Saturday, a group of more than 150 Mill Creek players, their fathers and Hawks coaches pitched in to help senior citizens - 19 homes in all - across Gwinnett County with everything from mowing lawns and pulling weeds to organizing garages and making small repairs. It's the fifth year the football program has participated in the project, set up by Gary Galloway, Gwinnett County Senior Services Volunteer Coordinator.

"It's neat because at this point we've gone through (a graduating class) and we're starting to get new kids who are teaching the ones just starting," Galloway said. "To me, this is a highlight every year. A personal and professional highlight.

"I've never met a nicer group of kids. I really tip my hat to the coach."

Shannon Jarvis is Mill Creek's head football coach. He said any praise should go to the kids and to the assistant coaches who volunteer their time to supervise the projects.

"This is all about the assistant coaches and the players," Jarvis said. "This is totally voluntary, but we put heavy emphasis for (the players) to participate. They are beginning to realize there are folks right here in their backyard who need help.

"The most important thing is not the task, but to communicate with the elderly. It is an opportunity for them to grow as young men."

Ryan Cooke is a senior free safety who participated in the project for the fourth straight year. He spent Saturday with a group of 10 cutting kudzu out of a senior's back yard. It was hard, sweaty work, but Cooke said it felt good to help.

"(When I first started) it was like, 'Ah, I've got to do this again.' But the more you do it the more rewarding it is to do it to help rather than to get paid," Cooke said. "When a senior comes out and sees that you've taken care of a whole backyard that they can't, the smile on their face is priceless."

Galloway said the services the Mill Creek team provides are far from priceless. He said the Web site independentsector.com puts a $20 per hour value on volunteer services like the Mill Creek football team performed this past weekend. Using that criteria, he said the Helping Hawks donated upward of $15,000 of labor.

"This is extraordinary to me," Galloway said of Mill Creek's efforts. "The kids perform tasks that many of us take for granted.

"And it's good for the kids to get to meet the older generation. It's a dose of reality for them. They're always on their best behavior and they work their butts off."

The hard work is appreciated and sparks letters as well as smiles. Nellie Wilson of Lawrenceville wrote a thank-you note to Galloway that read:

"Thanks to you, all the great football players, coaches and dads, I have a beautiful yard to look at. They did another fantastic job - working hard was such a pleasure to see. The young people were so dedicated - all the coaches and fathers were such shining examples.

"Makes your heart feel good to see this anytime. Especially early on a Saturday morning when most young people like to rest up. You can be proud that players and coaches are willing to work hard to help others in their community."

The Mill Creek community should be very proud, indeed.

Todd Cline can be reached at todd.cline@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Wednesdays.

SideBar: To volunteer

· To volunteer to help local seniors, call Gary Galloway at 770-822-8837 or e-mail gary.galloway@gwinnettcounty.com.