Westminster student gives time, gets results in volunteer effort

At 2,000-plus hours, teen's work gaining national recognition

June 18, 2000|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Some students consider a graduation requirement of 75 hours' community service an onerous task, but Westminster junior Jason Teegardin relishes his volunteer time.

The 15-year-old did not stop at 75 hours or even at 1,000 hours. He has accumulated more than 2,000 hours, and plans to keep going.

"My friends ask me if I will give them some of my hours," said Jason, who attends The Gateway School in Westminster, the county's alternative school.

As he has done every summer since he was 10 years old, Jason is devoting much of his time to Wonderland Daycare Center in Westminster. The center accepts disabled children among the other youngsters, and he often works one-on-one with a child who needs more attention.

"He is patient, really understands a child's limitations and can talk at their level," said Bob Cullison, principal of Gateway School.

Jason's volunteerism recently won him national recognition with the Prudential Spirit of Community Award.

"This was a nationwide competition," Cullison said. "To be recognized at that level was quite an accomplishment. He has impressed me with his maturity and ability to handle responsibility."

He also was chosen to represent Carroll County at the National Service Learning Conference in Providence, R.I., where he addressed a workshop of teachers.

"It is not easy to stand up in front of a group of teachers," said Estelle Sanzenbacher, community service coordinator for Carroll County schools. "Jason was relaxed and articulate. He believes in what he does; he believes in helping others. He told the audience that service has helped him believe in himself. There was not a dry eye in the place."

The award and the trip brought "real recognition" to her son, said Debbie Teegardin. She has helped him put together a portfolio detailing his volunteer efforts.

"He has really enjoyed volunteering," she said of the oldest of her four children. "It has really been a good learning experience for him."

Jason Teegardin wants to set a record for community service, and he is well on his way, Sanzenbacher said. Very few students reach 2,000 hours and even fewer go beyond that, she said.

Jason seems to gravitate to disabled children, possibly because he has a learning disability and can relate to their problems.

"He shares his learning problem openly and makes kids more comfortable right away," Cullison said.

Jason said, "I have a thought-processing problem, and I think that is why I can relate to these kids' problems. When I put my mind to it, I can do it and so can they."

His first assignment at the day care center might have sent many a young man running. He worked with a young autistic girl. Helping her "made me feel good about myself," he said.

The little girl had difficulty relating to the other children at the center. Jason talked to her, showed her how to play in the sandbox and taught her the ABCs and some sign language.

"He took right to her and worked really hard with her," said Catherine Gillan, owner of the Westminster day care. "When she came here, she could barely speak. But Jason helped her. By the time she left, she could sign, speak in short sentences and she could say Jason's name. He made all the difference for her and gave her the attention she needed."

Now he is working with two boys, among other children. One is developmentally disabled and the other has a learning disability.

"He is almost a father figure for these kids," Gillan said. "Many of them have no fathers in their lives, and they are hungry for male companionship."

Almost 6 feet tall, Jason looks ungainly seated in a kindergartner's chair, but there is no awkwardness in his interaction with the children surrounding him. He works a puzzle, plays a game, reads a story or heats up lunch.

"He plays all the good games with me," one 6-year-old said.

The teen-ager is organizing a basketball camp this summer, promising to teach willing youngsters the intricacies of the game. He has written to the basketball coach at the University of Maryland, asking if a Terrapin or two might come to his camp and give a few pointers. He hasn't received a response, but he plans to send another letter before camp gets under way.

A center with 56 children, from infants to 10-year-olds, can use volunteers, Gillan said.

"Jason just jumps right in, takes the initiative and guides the kids," she said. "He is the biggest help, the most motivated and he keeps coming back. He is here summers and most school holidays."

Jason said he looks forward to college and studying early childhood education. "I know with kids I succeed," he said.

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