The old sign welcoming people to Smithfield’s Belmont neighborhood is being restored thanks to students in the county’s alternative school.
Students at South Campus Community School in Smithfield are doing the service project as part of Black History Month. The Belmont area is historically black, and the school, which is in the neighborhood, was all black before integration.
“So often, Black History Month to me is something that tends to be more abstract and takes place on a larger scale,” said Chris Kennedy, the school’s neighborhood. “We want our students to be able to see and touch that right here, literally, in our own neighborhoods.”
Before lunchtime on a recent school day, the hushing sound of sandpaper on wood could be heard coming from South Campus’ woodworking shop. Led by teacher Jerry Harper, a small group of eighth-graders began to work on the sign.
Held up by two wooden posts, the sign, with “Belmont” written on both sides, is a few feet wide and less than a foot tall. The sign was once painted black with white letters, but most of that has worn away, replaced by water stains and algae.
Students used screwdrivers to chip off the old paint and algae, smoothing out the wood by hand with sandpaper. Just half an hour in, one side of the sign already looked much better, the light brown of the sign reappearing for the first time in years.
Originally, Harper planned to power wash the sign but knew sanding would be hard with wet wood. Plus, he wanted the students to have to work at the project. “We’ll do it the old-school way,” he told the eighth-graders.
Janari Brown of Selma said he liked the project because he enjoys working with his hands. “It’s fun, getting active, having more to do,” he said.
Brown also likes that the assignment is a service project, helping make the Belmont sign beautiful once again. “Showing what us teens can do, that we can help out,” he said.
Jason Matute of Smithfield said, “It feels good to be doing something active.” He said he uses books every day at school but doesn’t get to use his hands as much.
Matute also likes getting to help the community. “It’s really old, older than we are,” he said of the sign.
While working on the sign, Harper encouraged students with the sense of accomplishment they would soon feel. “Your work’s going to be out there a long time,” he said. When they drive buy, he told his students, they will be able to say: “Look what I did. I made a difference.”
“As adults, you’ve got to look for opportunities to make a difference,” Harper said. He said his generation’s place is coming to an end. “So who will pick up the slack?” he asked. The students answered with “Us!” and “Me!”
Harper said the project gives students important life lessons and practical experience. “By doing stuff like this, it gives them a sense of pride and self-worth,” he said. “These kids are assets, and they just need to start seeing themselves that way. ... Service is the best way to do it.”
Austin Bettencourt of Clayton said he thinks the people who built the sign would be proud to see him and his fellow students restoring it. The repaired sign will help people be proud of their neighborhood, he said.
Working on the sign makes Bettencourt think about all the people who helped him in life. “And then about how you want to help them,” he said.