Learning to give back: junior high, high school programs benefit community

Photos and Article by Emily Janauski
The Mahomet Daily and Mahomet Citizen share articles on a weekly basis.

Building a sense of community, developing relationships and gaining confidence, the Mahomet-Seymour Junior High School’s Community Action Program and the high school’s Interact Club provide unmatched volunteer service projects for students.

“It’s fun to know you’re making a difference in the community,” seventh-grade student Kaelyn Marx said.

Led by junior high social worker Jill Kyle, the Community Action Program started more than 15 years ago as an idea from an intern of Kyle’s.

“It was one of their project ideas to get kids involved in a positive way, especially kids who just need that positive focus in their life,” she said. “We’ve continued it ever since then.”

Nearly 25 students dedicate their time to fulfilling a handful of projects in the community. Recent projects include stocking shelves and organizing the thrift store at the Salvation Army in Champaign, helping kindergarten students with crafts at Middletown Prairie Elementary School, a Thanksgiving scavenger hunt where students go door to door to collect nonperishable food items and caroling at the Waterford at Bridle Brook assisted-living facility in Mahomet.

Project duration usually takes a couple hours with the majority of them taking place during the school day.

“Occasionally, there will be one or two in the evening, like the scavenger hunt, in order to catch people at home,” Kyle added.

Providing ideas for community service, the students are often the discussion leaders regarding upcoming projects.

“A lot of it depends on feasibility,” Kyle said. “Some places have age requirements or you have to have training or things like that. Sometimes they have ideas that aren’t feasible or that we just couldn’t work out. A lot of them are ones we’ve done yearly, and we kind of have a routine with how to plan for it.”

While the Community Action Program is often seen as having a positive impact on the community, the program also is a confidence booster for students.

“I just think finding that positive thing for kids to help them feel good about themselves and give back to the community is a win-win for both the kids and the community,” Kyle said. “It gets them out there and doing those positive things. It makes them feel good about themselves and does something good for other people.”

Projects range in difficulty from craft making to manual labor. Kyle noted students never complain about the tasks; rather, they often arrive with a smiles on their faces and can-do attitudes.

“They just always enjoy whatever it is we do, whether it’s manual labor, stocking shelves, painting or getting into the dirt at the park,” she said. “They just enjoy doing it. I think these are kids who want to do something to give back, but to also just have fun and they enjoy having that time away from school.”

Eighth-grade student Mike Gray joked that leaving the school for a few hours was an added bonus; however, he joined in order to help the community and “because my friend was in it,” he joked.

For eighth-grader Caden Lovenguth, the Community Action Program was a great way to break up his routine and get involved in the community.

“I wanted to do more,” Lovenguth said. “I usually sit at home and play video games.”

Other students, such as eighth-grader Emma Anderson, recognized their roles in creating a positive impact in the community through the program. Anderson’s favorite memory of the program included caroling at the Waterford at Bridle Brook assisted-living facility.

“My grandma lives there, and it was nice to see people nodding along,” she said. “I liked seeing how they (the residents) felt at peace because a lot of them have an illness.”

Students not only brought joy to senior citizens but also Mahomet’s youngest, such as the kindergartners at Middletown Prairie.

“Helping with the kindergartners, I had to become a monster to show them how to throw away trash,” eighth-grade student Michael Palumbo said.

“I liked making valentines with the kindergartners,” seventh-grade student Savannah Grammer said. “It was fun helping a little boy. He was quiet and sweet, and he even thought we were adults.”

Beyond providing a unique opportunity for students, the Community Action Program allows community members to connect with and see junior high school students in a positive light.

“I think there is sometimes misconceptions about junior high students,” Kyle said. “It’s nice just to see them interact with senior citizens or service providers that they’re working with. They just really appreciate the junior high students, and they’re (the students) wanting to give back. It’s just making that connection and hopefully it’s something they can continue down the road and do on their own at some point.”

Kyle hopes to continue the near once-a- month acts of service in the Mahomet community. Upcoming volunteer projects for junior high students include providing community service providers, such as clinic workers, post office workers, police officers and others, baked goods as a token of appreciation.

“It increases their self-esteem and self-confidence,” Kyle said. “It makes them feel a part of something. I know the high school started the Interact Club this year. It’s a nice option for them to continue. A lot of my students will ask, ‘Do they have this at the high school? We want to keep doing these types of things.’ Now they’ve got that going.”

Continuing the positive outlet for students through their high school years, the new Interact Club provides students similar opportunities to volunteer their time.

“The kids have so much to give,” said Rhonda Starkey, Mahomet-Seymour High School math teacher and Interact Club teacher volunteer. “Maybe they’re not the best athlete or academic. I get a lot out of seeing them interact with the community knowing that they’re giving their time.”

With the help of the club sponsor Jeanne Campion from the Mahomet Rotary Club, the club now has 30 active members. Projects are student led and they are often fueled by their desire to help the community.

“I like volunteering in general,” sophomore Sylvia Byron said. “I liked it when we went to Bridle Brook and visited with the residents and delivered Valentine’s Day cards and wreaths.”

Student projects include bell ringing at the Mahomet IGA for the Salvation Army, helping run a holiday shop for the crisis nursery, planting trees at 13 Acres Park and even providing a last-minute Thanksgiving food scavenger hunt, where students collected nonperishable food items from 3 to 5 p.m. the Tuesday before the holiday and raised more than 800 pounds of food.

“The scavenger hunt was amazing because it just happened on a whim before break,” Starkey said. “Some even followed to Helping Hands (where the food was donated) to help unload — that got me teary eyed.”

Students view the club as beneficial for a multitude of reasons. Ella Shafer, for example, found the idea of coming together for a “common goal” to be a wonderful experience. Others, such as Mya Schure, found the experiences to be ones that provide a “feeling of satisfaction” as they are able to do their part to help the community.

“It’s beneficial because you’re growing as a person,” junior Costen Campion said.

“People are really thankful and they’re always smiling,” senior Gabby Durdle added.

Starkey’s vision for the club is to possibly join forces with other school districts’ Interact Clubs. Other ideas include hosting a fall carnival to raise funds for a backpack program that would provide school supplies for those in need in the Mahomet-Seymour School District.

“I hope they carry on the aspect of giving back,” Starkey said. “We don’t know what life brings us. We don’t know what’s going on in other peoples’ lives, but if you can help someone, then help them. They’re giving back, and they expect nothing in return. They’re doing this because they want to do it.”

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