By Tim McCarthy
At the Hiltop School of West Congregational Church, the students' newest friends are a bunch of animals. Really.
During the Hilltop School's recent open house, seven pieces of plywood carved and painted to resemble barnyard animals were unveiled.
Created by church member Sue Wagner, the animals decorate the fence that surrounds wooden playstead in the school's yard.
Hilltop School Director Tammi McGrath said the animals were added after children requested playmates for a plywood cow that Wagner had created for the Vacation Bible School program years earlier.
"The kids had suggested he needed a friend," said McGrath. "They love them. All the kids have their favorites."
Wagner has been a prolific artist and volunteer at the West Congregational Church in the past with other programs such as the Angel Food Ministries. She has provided her artistic support through other painting projects, including a sea floor mural for the Sunday School, and tending to the church's gardens.
"I'm glad I can make a contribution to brighten up their playground," Wagner said.¬�
Her outreach is a natural extension of her career as an art teacher at Methuen High School for more than 30 years. Originally from Shrewsbury, Wagner moved to Haverhill in the 1970s to take a job at Methuen High after studying art at Framingham State College.
She said that her talents are merely a service to God for his blessings. "It's a challenge at times, but it's a joy to do things for him," she said. "If I can do it by God's grace, then I sure will."
Another member of the parish, Rob Seuss, has volunteered to paint the playstead traditional red and white barn colors when the weather gets better for painting.
The addition of the animals is only one part of a greater project by the Hilltop School.
McGrath hopes to install a new play structure for which the school has been saving since 2007. The structures can be prohibitively expensive, McGrath said, costing upward of $30,000 to $40,000.¬� "Hopefully by the end of this year, we might start some groundbreaking," she said.
ON THE FENCE
Sue Wagner's barnyard bunch: