For some teenagers, community service can be an afterschool or summer obligation to check off the list, but for Alec VanZuiden, helping others is just a way of life.
VanZuiden, 18, recently was recognized for his community involvement as one of 24 Kansas youths to win Kohl’s department stores’ Kids Who Care Scholarship Program. As a store winner, he received a $50 gift card and certificate of recognition and is in the running for a $5,000 scholarship for college.
As a member of the Civil Air Patrol with the Lawrence Composite Squadron, VanZuiden has spent more than 1,500 hours training others in leadership and disaster relief skills and serves as the cadet commander of the squadron. The Civil Air Patrol is a civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force. The cadet program is a branch of the organization for youths age 12 to 21. As cadet commander, VanZuiden oversees the training for members under 18.
Capt. Duane Filkins, director of the cadet program, saw VanZuiden benefit from the organization but says he already was a driven young man when he joined.
“The kids that join this program have a tendency to put a bit more on their plate,” Filkins says. “And Alec is definitely like that.”
VanZuiden has volunteered at the Douglas County Relay for Life and March of Dimes, and he served in color guards for parades and Veterans Day ceremonies.
Twice VanZuiden has led new citizens in their first pledge of allegiance at naturalization ceremonies at the Dole Institute of Politics.
“It’s an honor, but nerve-racking,” he says. “You never feel like you’re going to forget the words more.”
His father, Mike VanZuiden, says his Alec immediately flourished under the leadership of the Civil Air Patrol and “stepped right up” with their volunteer activities.
“We’ve always told him to do the right things for the right reasons,” Mike says. “But Alec’s just the kind of kid that’s always trying to help someone else.”
A graduate of Free State High School, VanZuiden will be a freshman at Kansas University this fall and plans to major in business and minor in criminal justice with the goal of becoming a police officer. He will continue his work with the Civil Air Patrol and hopes to get involved in new opportunities such as the ROTC.
When asked why he’ll continue to volunteer, it’s clear the rewards go beyond winning scholarships and recognition for VanZuiden.
“In the end, you helped somebody,” he says. “And maybe someday you’ll need that help.”