The Dowagiac Daily News begins its top stories countdown of the year

In the last year, our newspapers have covered stories of heartbreak, warmth and triumph. As 2018 draws to a close, the Leader Publications newsroom will take a look back at some of those stories and the most memorable events of the last year in Dowagiac and Cass County as we count down the 10 stories of the year, as determined by our staff.

10. T.K. Lawless Park goes dark

Few things inspire more wonder than looking up at a clear night sky full of bright, shining stars. At least, that is what some members of the Cass County Parks Board believe, which is why they spent the year taking steps to preserve the night sky.

In 2018, Cass County took a deeper investment into its natural dark skies by applying to make T.K. Lawless Park an International Dark Sky site.

The International Dark-Sky Association is the recognized authority on light pollution and is the leading organization combating light pollution worldwide, according to its website. The association provides parks, communities and places with Dark Sky designations to applicants that fulfill the required criteria, which includes achieving dark sky friendly lighting, advocating for the protection of the night sky, having appropriate light readings and more.

One of the main goals of the International Dark Sky Association is to fight light pollution, which is the inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light, which can have serious environmental consequences for humans, wildlife and the climate.

For Cass County, the process to become a Dark Sky site began almost two years ago, but 2018 saw the most significant push by the board and Robert Parrish, of Edwardsburg, who spearheaded the project. Parrish and Parks Director Scott Wyman have made presentations to the Cass County Board of Commissioners, received application letters from state legislators and looked into funding for Dark Sky compliant lighting.  Though the county still has a long way to go until it is officially recognized as an official Dark Sky site, Parrish said the journey will be worth it.

“Once people look up at the stars on a completely clear, dark night, they will understand why we are doing this,” Parrish said in September. “The sky sells itself.”

9. Dowagiac takes on the Little Free Library Project

If one had been walking around town since the summer, they might have come across a series of outdoor boxes, some colorful, some with roofs, some even in the shape of a boat. Though the boxes may each look different, they each share one characteristic: they carry books that can be accessed and borrowed by anyone at any time.

This year, Dowagiac and Sister Lakes started a movement with the Little Free Library project, meant to inspire literacy and community reading within the city limits and beyond.

Little Free Library is a nationwide nonprofit organization and movement that inspires a love of reading, builds community and sparks creativity by fostering neighborhood book exchanges around the world, according to the organization. Little Free Libraries provide 24/7 access to books, seeking to encourage a love of reading and provide neighborhoods an opportunity to foster pride in a common project, according to the Little Free Library website.

In May, the city debuted the first three outdoor Little Free Libraries at Patrick Hamilton Elementary, City Hall and Russ Forest Park. The project was spearheaded by Patrick Hamilton Elementary Principal Heather Nash, after seeing the need for the project at her school.

“There are so many times when my kids don’t have a way to get another book if they have finished one, and on Saturdays when the [district] library is closed, they can’t get a new book,” Nash told the Dowagiac Daily News at the time. “We wanted something that was risk-free for them, where people could go to a new piece of literature or where people could donate literature at all hours.”

Following the success of the first Little Free Libraries, the city launched a community initiative in July to encourage residents to build their own Little Free Libraries to foster literacy. The project has since taken off with several neighborhoods now sporting Little Free Library boxes. Some local teens even installed the libraries as part of Eagle Scout and Girl Scout projects.

Leaders with the project have said they hope to see the project continue to grow over time.

“I think we are going to be seeing a lot more here,” Nash said in May. “I hope the libraries are always full. I hope people are always taking and people are always donating. I hope it makes a dialog about reading that we need in the community.”

8. Students speak up

In March of this year, students at Dowagiac Union High School and Dowagiac Middle School took up megaphones and marched out of their classrooms to protest a national issue that has been plaguing schools around the country.

Following the February school shooting Parkland, Florida that left 17 students and staff dead, Dowagiac students decided to protest gun violence in schools, with several students saying they protested because they do not feel safe in their school knowing that a school shooting could happen there.

The protest was controversial at the time and sparked community debate, but the students involved in the protests said they had a right to make their voices heard.

“We want to get the word out there,” said Makala Hill, a middle school student, at the time. “We want to remember that we were students and that we said something and took a stand. We are not going to be just heard in the school. We need change. We want to be safe in our schools and have our education.”

Though not directly inspired by the Parkland tragedy, as part of the Dowagiac Union Schools bond project, the district added new safety features to the schools, including a new camera system, doors that lock from both inside and outside the classroom, heating and cooling systems that would allow windows to be closed at all times and new entry ways that added an extra layer of security and left front doors locked during school hours.

“As Superintendent, parent of three children attending Dowagiac Union Schools, and spouse of an elementary teacher, the safety and well-being of our students and staff is extremely important to me both professionally and personally,” Superintendent Paul Hartsig wrote in a column published in the Dowagiac Daily News in March.

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