Pupils get lessons in service

Harford Day classes pair with organizations as kids learn to be `contributing citizens'

Education Beat


Alex Pace walked the halls of a local nursing home, stopping at the patients' rooms to visit. During brief conversations she learned many of them were without families or visitors.

"It made me feel good to be at the elder home," said the 13-year-old, an eighth-grader. "I wanted to make them smile and feel better. I'm close to my grandparents, and I got to help the elder people without grandchildren see what it would be like to have a granddaughter."

Alex's visit was a small part of the extensive community service program offered at Harford Day School, which she attends.

Although the school has always tried to foster community service, the current program kicked off last year. Each grade is assigned to a community service organization, with a parent volunteer in charge of the service projects.

The nonprofit organizations selected this year include the Manna House, Cards of Caring, the Linus Organization, the Humane Society, Family and Children's Services, Lorien Assisted Living, Eden Mill Nature Center, Harvest of Love, U.S. Marine Pen Pals and SARC (Sexual Assault/Spouse Abuse Resource Center Inc.).

Although participation isn't mandatory, it's encouraged.

"We want our kids to be contributing citizens at any age," said Su Harris, head of the school. "Some children do less than others, but we are less concerned with quantity and more concerned with instilling habits."

The younger pupils focus on simple tasks, such as making cards for local hospitals and blankets for the Linus Organization, based in Bloomington, Ill. First-grade teacher Donna Kamyszek said the first-graders will make about 70 blankets, which the Linus Organization will distribute to people in need, such as victims of Hurricane Katrina.

"Parents donate the material, and we prep it for the kids," Kamyszek said. "The kids sit in groups and tie the blankets. ... It's a great activity for a rainy day recess, and we'll do it throughout the school year."

Ariel Taxdal, 13, of Bel Air said that last year, 39 seventh-graders were split into eight groups and were assigned Marines as pen pals.

"We wrote and asked one Marine what he missed the most about home, and he said Mexican food. So we surprised him and sent him some. He also loved chocolate-chip cookies, so we baked a bunch and he shared them with all his friends," Ariel said.

"It was great fun! The only hard part was that we were never told when we were assigned someone new if our pen pal had been injured or went home; we were only told that we had a new person," she said.

Not all of the projects are enjoyable.

Laura Blum, 13, of Bel Air said the work she did last year at a cleanup day at Eden Mill Nature Center left her feeling worn out.

"I like working with my friends," Laura said. "But you can't imagine how hard it is clearing brush from a big open space that's full of stuff. It's a lot of hard work. I had scratches, and I went to bed early that night. I don't know if I'll volunteer to do that one again."

Cheryl Steedman of Forest Hill coordinated the cleanup event this year, and she said about 40 kids signed up. Participants spent the day doing age-appropriate jobs. Small children cleaned turtle cages and helped prepare the summer exhibits for winter storage. The older pupils cleaned debris and performed other tasks.

"They have a bad mosquito problem out there. So two years ago we made bat boxes," Steedman said. "The bat boxes attract mosquitos, and the bats eat them."

Steedman, the mother of Lauren, 11, and Brennan, 9, said she would like to see an increase in the minimum recommendations for community service. Currently, each grade level is asked to perform a certain number of hours of service. For example, sixth-graders are asked to do 10 hours and eighth-graders, 30 hours.

"My daughter has double the hours she's asked to give already," Steedman said. "But the really good thing is that no matter how much they do, they get recognition for whatever time they give. Even if they aren't recognized for academics, they're always recognized for their efforts here."

Jonathan Withrow, 13, of Abingdon said he does some outside volunteering but gets the most satisfaction from volunteering at the school.

"The thing that I've done that makes me feel the best is setting up the computer lab," Jonathan said. "This summer, I spent two weeks downloading servers on 13 computers and got them ready for students to use. When I finished, I felt like I made a difference."

Katy Dallam, head of the middle school, said that's what the program is all about.

"We want our students to grow up in a culture where they give back and feel good about it," Dallam said.

Harris said the lessons the kids are learning reach beyond the school program. Some pupils are initiating ventures of their own to help the needy.

Eighth-grader Kristen Russo, for example, took money she saved and purchased six bags of secondhand clothing as her contribution to Katrina victims.

"It's turning colder now, and it felt good knowing I would be helping kids my age to stay warm and have clothes to wear," said the 12-year-old Bel Air girl. "It feels really good to help people."

Philip Lazzaroni, a third-grader from Fork, surprised Harris with a donation shortly after the hurricane.

"He came into my office and gave me $18.05 he raised with a lemonade stand that weekend," Harris said. "What these kids are doing reinforces that our effort to create habits of giving back and helping is working."

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