Volunteering is students' first step into greater world

Despite being a little bit shy, 10-year-old Megan Walsh found herself taking charge.

She’s one of 16 fifth-graders chosen by their homeroom teachers at Chauncey H. Duker School in McHenry to make up the leadership club. For the club’s latest fundraiser, Megan was the security guard.

“I got to watch people do things [to make sure] they are doing it correctly and they’re not giving less money or anything like that,” she said.

Candy canes with messages tied to them will be delivered during homeroom Friday. Proceeds from the fundraiser will go toward gift cards for families in need.

The club is in its second year, said Natalie Vallianatos, the club’s sponsor and a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher. Last year, its students raised more than $340 through candy cane grams. This year, they raised $200. And that was just one of many fundraisers the club tackled.

The kids worked with Alden-Hebron schools to collect donations for six baskets valued at $300 each that went to Joplin, Mo., families displaced by last year’s tornado. They raised nearly $6,000 for St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a childhood cancer charity. Some students and staff even shaved their heads as part of that campaign.

“From what I’ve seen and what parents have told us in the past, they’re just becoming more thoughtful of those around them, not that they’re self-centered to begin with, but they see the bigger picture,” Vallianatos said.

“They see that there are other people that need to be helped. It’s not just about one little school that they’re in or one little community that they’re in. They’re trying to help the big picture and broaden their horizons.”

For some children, the club is their first taste of volunteering. Others, such as 10-year-old Dylan Jensen, have volunteered through their churches.

“You should try hard to get in the club,” Dylan said. “You have to stay after school for it, and I was like, ‘Ugh,’ but in the first few weeks, I was like, ‘Wow, this is really fun.’ ”

Of two district middle schools, Duker is the only one with the program, and its fifth-graders are the youngest students with a leadership club.

Vallianatos said her students – and other children their age – are ready for the responsibility.

Stephanie Olson decided her daughter, Rebecca, was old enough to handle the responsibility of fostering puppies at age 9, she said. They started with the Almost Home Foundation, then moved to the Huntley-based Animal House Shelter because it was closer.

Now 14 and a freshman at Crystal Lake South High School, Rebecca said she got a lot out of fostering. Her dream is to open a “giant” shelter.

“Since I love animals so much and the puppies are really cute, it’s hard to give them up, but when you get to see them go to a better home, I think that’s the most fulfilling part of it,” Rebecca said. “That’s because even if you don’t get to be with them, you’re kind of shaping their life to be better.”

In addition to their family dog, Lexus, the Olsons currently have two terrier-mix puppies, Batman and Robin, that are about 12 weeks old. They race back and forth, tumbling over each other, and are eager to be picked up.

Each year, they foster between 20 and 30 puppies from one night to nine weeks, Stephanie Olson said.

One Christmas season, they had 10 Bernese mountain dog puppies and their mother. It was a lot of work, the family said, but as Christmas gifts to their cousins, they let each of them name a puppy.

Stephanie Olson said she was raised in a home where volunteering was a priority, and she wanted to pass that on to her two children. Bob and Stephanie Olson also have a son, Kevin, 12.

“To me, when you’re not volunteering, I just feel like there’s something missing, and so I really want my kids to grow up volunteering and wanting to contribute to society,” Stephanie Olson said.

Besides fostering, Rebecca also volunteered last year as a buddy for Little League’s challenger division, which is for kids with disabilities between the ages of 5 and 18.

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