About this story
Micki Chestnut is communications director for the United Way of Douglas County, which provides occasional features spotlighting local volunteers and charities supported by the United Way.
This summer, if you were wandering through one of the nonprofit agencies where the United Way Roger Hill Volunteer Center’s Summer of Service was going on, trying to locate the teams of teen volunteers, all you had to do was stop and listen. The boisterous laughter and animated talk was like a lighthouse beacon.
Who knew spending your summer vacation doing stuff like sorting donated goods, cleaning animal cages and pulling weeds could be so much fun. But fun was one of the huge draws for the 88 students who decided to do something meaningful over their summer break by volunteering for group projects and service internships at 22 area nonprofits.
Now in its fifth year, the Summer of Service, made possible with funding from the Douglas County Community Foundation, is more popular than ever. More than 110 students from 15 area middle schools and high schools applied for 14 group projects and 13 internships. The students engaged in service learning at nonprofits as diverse as Theatre Lawrence, Operation Wildlife and Habitat for Humanity.
By the end of the seven-week program, the teens had contributed almost 2,500 hours of service to Douglas County.
As Desha Middleton, Zoe Wohlford and Melissa Jacob dug through boxes of donated toys, clothing and household goods at the Salvation Army, they seemed like old friends, even though they had just met. They clowned and shared stories while they organized and cataloged the items to be distributed to families in need.
“I get to meet new people that are my age, and I get to learn new things like how I can help the environment or community,” said Middleton, a freshman at Eudora High School, who was participating for the second year in the Summer of Service. “It’s a good experience to be able to get up in the morning – that’s a miracle in itself – and come here and organize stuff with the people I met a day ago.”
In addition to participating in the group project at Salvation Army, Jacob, a sophomore at Bishop Seabury Academy, also did an internship with the Lawrence Humane Society.
“I like to volunteer at places that actually need a lot of help,” she said. “I like animals, and I know they don’t get a lot of help at the Human Society. People want to come pet the dogs, but no one wants to clean the cages and wash the floors.”
Wohlford, an 8th grader at Liberty Memorial Central Middle School, signed up for a second year after having lots of fun doing Summer of Service group projects last year. “Seeing life from a different perspective helps you appreciate what you have,” she shared.
Exposing students to the needs in our community and empowering them to meet those needs is one of the goals of the Summer of Service, explained team leader Kelly Kristiansen, a junior at Kansas State University. Another is helping students develop self-confidence and leadership skills.
Kristiansen observed that at the beginning of the group projects, the students were often a little hesitant and shy. But in a matter of hours, she said, “They got a lot more comfortable in their own skin and working with others. They come into their own leadership roles. It’s fun to watch them progress.”
For the nonprofits in need of volunteer support, the energetic teens were a godsend.
“The agencies were overjoyed when we came,” Kristiansen said. “At the end of the week, they were so grateful, they said ‘thank you’ like 12 times.”
“The greatest need any nonprofit has is telling the story of what we do to the greater community. With the Summer of Service volunteers we have an opportunity to share what we do, and in turn, help raise a generation who is more aware of the people and needs around them,” said Lt. Marisa McCluer, corps officer with the Salvation Army.
“Ultimately it’s a way of investing in the future of our community as well as the future of the students who are involved. Most of them will never forget where they have helped and who they have helped.”