City third-grader Olivia Jennings has been coming to the Mitchell Woods since she was a toddler, and likely is to return here often for years to come.
"In the summer, we go on little hikes in the woods," she said. "Sometimes we see dragonflies, and sometimes we catch frogs."
The pony-tailed girl in a sundress was one of four young people from New London who pitched shovels into a mound of dirt Saturday to kick off the restoration of the seven-acre woodland adjacent to Mitchell College in the south end of the city.
More than 200 people, many of them Little League players and first-year students at Mitchell, stood in the shade of a towering tree to watch the ceremony before beginning to clear trails, remove invasive weeds and paint during a "day of caring."
College president Janet Steinmayer welcomed the students, politicians, trustees and neighbors and recalled other milestones marked at Mitchell Woods over the years.
- In 1954, a horse show was held on the grounds, with events taking place in four different rings, she said.
- In 1971, the Eastern Regional Little League Championship game was played on the ball fields.
- And in 1978, students took to the pond to skate after classes were canceled because of that winter's infamous blizzard, Steinmayer said.
Kevin Hennessy, director of federal, state and local affairs for Dominion Resources, challenged the volunteers to outperform the 30 to 40 Dominion engineers who soon will spend a day working on one of the park's bridges.
The utility gave the college a $17,500 grant that is helping to fund the first phase of the Mitchell Woods restoration project.
Landscape architect Chad Frost, whose firm has created a master plan to refurbish the woods over several years, characterized the project as a "sprucing up."
He said the baseball fields and tennis courts would remain as they are, but that the man-made pond and some of the walkways need work.
Existing trails are being cleared, with removal of invasive weeds, and new trails are being constructed. The playground will be moved to a different location, Frost said.
"Mitchell Woods is a lot more than an isolated place for Mitchell College," Frost said. "It really is a community park."
The four children hoisting shovels enjoy the community-college connection envisioned in 1931 when Annie O. Mitchell created a trust allowing the college to manage the park for the benefit of the citizens of New London.
Olivia Jennings attends the Drop-In Learning Center in the stone cottage on grounds at Mitchell Woods.
Her older brother, Menelik Jennings, graduated from Mitchell in 2008 and her father, Karl Jennings, said he comes to the campus often for community events.
Nate Bowes, a first-year student at Mitchell whose father works in campus safety at the college, said he and his dad have traipsed through the woods over the years, identifying trees and enjoying the wildlife.
Shayla Goode, a junior at the city's Science & Technology Magnet School, has taken courses at Mitchell and said she just might bring her friends to the Mitchell Woods for a nature walk.
Zion Fraser is a member of the Mariners Little League team that plays games on the baseball field.
Public facilities in the Woods include an extensive trail system, two little league baseball fields, four tennis courts, a playground, a volleyball court, a basketball court, a pavilion, and an ice skating pond.