Albion grants manager has helped coordinate many service learning and community projects

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 24 April 2015 at 12:00 am

Heritage Hero: Sue Starkweather Miller

Provided photo – Sue Starkweather Miller is pictured at Mount Albion Cemetery with Mike Thaine, left, and Gary Simboli. The trio coordinate the annual Ghost Walk at the cemetery, which typically includes about 60 student participants. About 500 community members come out for the Ghost Walk.

ALBION – Sue Starkweather Miller remembers the project in 1995 that would kick off a new culture of community service by students and staff at Albion Central School.

Jeff Evoy, now Medina Central School superintendent, was a social studies teacher for Albion in 1995. He and his students were studying the Vietnam War.

Evoy wanted students to talk with local Vietnam veterans, and get their stories. The students learned that many of those veterans felt forgotten. Evoy and the students decided there should be a memorial for the Vietnam veterans, and it would be dedicated in front of the Middle School.

File photo by Tom Rivers – The monument for Orleans County residents who served in the Vietnam War was dedicated in 1995 in front of the Albion Middle School.

The monument was dedicated in memory of Vietnam War veterans from Orleans County who served in the war, and lists the names of local soldiers who died in the war. The oral histories recorded by students were also compiled into a book.

That project energized the district and community. A memorial for veterans from World War II would be relocated from behind the Middle School to the front of the building by the Vietnam memorial.

Deacon Ben Jones, a prominent leader in the black community, shared with some school leaders that Albion has many historical markers and monuments, but none for black residents.

Provided photo – Deacon Ben Jones speaks at a dedication ceremony for a monument to pioneer black residents in Orleans County.

Students and Albion teachers connected with local historians and then went researching into Census records from the 1800s, which detailed if residents were black and listed their occupations and family members.

Those pioneer black residents of Orleans County were honored with a large stone monument, listing their names, in Mount Albion Cemetery. The monument was dedicated on June 17, 2000.

Sue Starkweather Miller has been in the background for many of the district’s service learning projects, connecting students to historians, and other resources in the community.

She is co-leader of the annual Ghost Walk at Mount Albion Cemetery, where about 60 students portray residents in the cemetery or serve as tour guides or with lighting and setup.

She is being honored at 7 p.m. today as a Heritage Hero along with three others in Orleans County. The event is part of the Civil War Encampment in Medina at the GCC campus center.

“This is really a district award,” said Starkweather Miller, who works as the district’s grants manager.

Starkweather Miller is an Albion graduate who was hired to work for Albion 24 years ago to coordinate a Community Schools grant that paid for before and after-school programming for at-risk students. The grant included summer school and parenting programs.

Photo by Tom Rivers – Alyssa Lawrence speaks during a recent Ghost Walk at Mount Albion and tells the story of Jane Lavery, who was 16 when she died in a bridge collapse in Albion on Sept. 28, 1859.

Ron Sodoma, the former district superintendent, wanted to open the schools to the community and see students commit to service projects. He asked Starkweather Miller to push along some of those efforts, in addition to Community Schools program.

“It’s always been about opening the school up to the community with the school being the hub of the community,” she said.

The district has a walking trail inside the elementary school that is busy from 4 to 8 p.m. on many weekdays. There is also an outdoor walking trail.

Starkweather Miller also coordinates an internship program where high schoolers work with local businesses and agencies.

She has managed the grants since 2000, and also has worked as the district’s public information officer. Unofficially, she is often the face of the district in the community, said Mary Leto, the assistant superintendent of instruction. Leto also has worked with the district for 24 years and watched Starkweather Miller take an idea and build support for it in the district and community.

“She is the facilitator,” Leto said. “Susie is the coach and the conductor, who orchestrates all of the parts.”

Photo by Lisa Mannella – Students are pictured in June 2011 with the rededicated cemetery for residents of the Alms House on Countyhouse Road.

Starkweather Miller is active with the Albion Alumni Association and also Holy Family Parish. She also can seem ubiquitous at community events.

She is trusted by the community, and the district’s partners in many of the projects know if Starkweather Miller is involved, the district will be committed.

“Susie is a natural leader,” Leto said. “What she brings to the table is her commitment to Albion.”

Starkweather Miller said she is most proud of the project to clean up and rededicate a cemetery for residents of the County Alms House. This was the precursor to the Orleans County Nursing Home. Many poor residents stayed at the Alms House on West Countyhouse Road before the nursing home opened in the early 1960s.

When residents from the Alms House died, they were often buried in a cemetery on the property with numbered tombstones, but no names.

Orleans County Historian Bill Lattin visited a seventh grade classroom in the fall of 2010 to talk about local history. He made a passing comment about the Alms House, how the road, Countyhouse, was named for the county-owned home.

Lattin told the students the cemetery was overgrown and many of the gravestones had fallen over.

His comments piqued students interest, and a group of them joined their teacher Tim Archer and Starkweather Miller on a site visit. They were shocked to see the cemetery so neglected.

They would clean it up and reset the stones with help from the County Highway Department. Students researched who was buried there. That was difficult because many of the records were destroyed in a fire but Albion Town Clerk Sarah Basinait helped track down some information.

Starkweather Miller secured a large piece of sandstone from Keeler Construction for the cemetery sign and a historical marker went up by the side of the road, noting the history of the sight.

The rededicated cemetery was celebrated in June 2011.

Photo by Lisa Mannella – A historical marker notes the Alms House on West Countyhouse Road.

“I remember when we first went there and we walked through the mud and the stones were knocked over,” Starkweather Miller said. “To see what it is now is just amazing.”

The district has won a national award for its service learning projects, and Starkweather Miller presents at many conferences about the Albion projects and the importance of community partnerships.

The greatest reward is seeing the students take more pride in Albion.

“It’s about remembering, sharing and educating others,” Starkweather Miller said. “It’s important to know a sense of place and to be proud of your community.”

The district motto is “Achievement, Character, Success for Life.” Leto said Starkweather Miller has been an important leader in promoting that message, and living it.

“Susie gets that we’re trying to get the kids to be the people they were created to be,” Leto said.