Brian Mittge Commentary: Building a Piece of Home


It’s graduation season, so many of us are attending parties or giving gifts to our young people as they emerge into the world.

That’s gotten me thinking about something, and I’d like to get your help with a project that I have in mind. It’s an idea for a kind of long-term gift that graduates can both leave behind and take with them as they go forth into a productive adulthood.

The goal is to create a project that our youth can help create, ideally a community-wide effort, that will accomplish a few things at once. First, it will teach them something practical. It will give them a chance to help do something substantial. And it will give them a touchstone, a piece of their hometown to which they can always return and say, “I helped build that.”

An example in my life is Penny Playground (the first one), built by volunteer labor while I was in high school. It was a joyous community effort that brought hundreds of people out to do their part.

For many years after, I could walk to the exact board that I put into place, putting my hand on something that was an enduring contribution I had made to something important. I felt a sense of ownership and shared accomplishment.

After leaving town for college and my first jobs, that simple board in a beloved Chehalis landmark was something that kept me connected to my hometown.

Years later, as a young man, I had the chance to see this play out with the next generation. My wife’s fourth-grade students at Washington Elementary in Centralia were recruited as part of a large project to plant native trees in the Chehalis River Discovery Trail north of the Hub City.

City workers used augers to make holes for the saplings, which the kids planted and tamped into place.

Over several years, many students from across the city and region came to help plant thousands of trees. They grew quickly. During subsequent visits to the Discovery Trail, I’ve met adults who remember planting trees there. The verdant patch of forest that has now grown to 40 feet tall or more is something real, something valuable, that they can point to as an early life accomplishment.

I’ve been looking for projects like that for my own kids. Of course we do things around the house, but part of the power of this type of work is that it’s done alongside others, in solidarity, with all of us contributing a piece to something bigger than what we could do alone.

One idea would be building a Habitat for Humanity house, but my understanding is that they require volunteers to be 18 years old. That’s understandable from a safety perspective, but regrettable for what I’m trying to achieve for the young people of our community. While it’s always a good time to volunteer, if we’re trying to get people before they graduate, age 18 is too late.

What I envision would be something like Penny Playground — a physical project that would be open and inviting for young people to join in a meaningful way. When it’s all said and done, all will be able to point to some tangible part of it that they built.

Some organizations already do this, on a smaller scale. Future Eagle Scouts must design, organize and rally support for a project that permanently improves their community. I love that, and I’d like us to think bigger for something that could scale to dozens or hundreds of our young people.

Wherever they go, their accomplishments in this project will connect them to their hometown for years to come, while at the same time empowering them to go forth and do even bigger and better things.

Maybe we could call this “Helping Our Kids Build the Future.” 

What are some ideas we could start putting together now for the Classes of 2023 and beyond to help build? Send them to me by email, please.

This might help create a beloved new landmark for our community — but even if it’s a little more modest, it’ll still be a great way to build up good young men and women along the way.


Dad Joke of the Week

Q: Can you come up with a word that starts with N and ends with E?

A: Nope.


Brian Mittge has covered life in the greater Lewis County area since 2000. Contact him at