Teens Lend a Helping Hand

August 21, 2002 | By Corissa Jansen

When Ben Sander started volunteering to teach computer skills to retirees, his first task involved putting some jittery senior citizens at ease at the keyboard.

“A lot of them thought the computer was going to eat them. So the first thing I did was make them touch the computers to get them used to it,” said Sander, a senior at Waukesha North High School who volunteers at Summit Woods, an independent senior community in Waukesha.

When the residents eventually would get the hang of shooting off an e-mail to grandkids or making greeting cards from a computer program, Sanders knew he was making an impact. “When they get it right, they’re so proud of it,” he said. “It’s pretty gratifying to know that you taught that person how to do that.”

It’s been a similar scene across Waukesha County as teens like Sander have shunned the typical lazy-days-of-summer attitude to volunteer in growing numbers. Some are just trying to keep busy, some are building resumes for college and others are simply enjoying lending a helping hand.

Regardless of their motivation, teens and college students comprise the majority of volunteers that the non-profit Volunteer Center of Waukesha County dispatches to about 100 local agencies.

The boom in youthful volunteers has prompted the Volunteer Center to create a Youth Advisory Board to help find more opportunities to spark teens’ interest, such as volunteering in theater and other arts-related fields.

“What surprises me the most is the amount of energy and spirit they have toward volunteerism,” said Kim Korber, youth program director at the Volunteer Center of Waukesha County.

“They want to do so much extra work for the community,” she added. “It’s wonderful to know their opinions and have them be my spokespersons throughout the county.”

Marking Sept. 11

The Youth Advisory Board has been planning its first major project this summer, a Sept. 11-related collection for the American Red Cross through the Points of Light Foundation’s “Unity in the Spirit of America” initiative.

The national initiative asks Americans to do volunteer work in the memory of those who died that day, and the Volunteer Center’s Youth Advisory Board chose two victims to honor in its collection drive. Tara Creamer, 30, of Westfield, Mass., was killed on American Airlines Flight 11, and Lt. Col. Dennis Johnson, 48, from Port Edwards, Wis., died at the Pentagon.

The collection drive for the six-county Greater Milwaukee Chapter of the American Red Cross is scheduled for 9 a.m. to noon Sept. 8 at Sentry Foods, 701 N. Meadowbrook Road, Waukesha.

The board is seeking a variety of new items for the Red Cross to help them assist victims of disaster including toothbrushes and various toiletries, diapers, sweat suits and blankets.

Though most started volunteering before Sept. 11, some members of the Youth Advisory Board say they’re encouraged by how Americans—and young people, in particular—have pulled together to help various charities.

“Everybody wants to pitch in and bring our country together even more,” said board secretary Allison Michalovitz, a junior at Arrowhead High School.

Even before Sept. 11 changed so many facets of life in America, scholars who study this young generation of so-called “millennials” had touted today’s teens for filling a societal void for civic achievement.

Authors William Strauss and Neil Howe have written a book about them, “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation.”

Making a Difference

Menomonee Falls High School senior Chris Blank said he thinks some of those glowing assessments of teens’ sense of community spirit make sense, especially when he considers the world events that caused previous generations to turn their activism in other directions.

“Before Sept. 11, there really haven’t been events that would put cynicism in people, whereas generations before us had the Vietnam War and other things that made people really cynical,” said Blank, a member of the Volunteer Center’s Youth Advisory Board.

“It maybe took that volunteering seed out of people, and that hasn’t really happened to our generation,” Blank added. “The jury’s still out on whether that will change (after Sept. 11). It’s only been a year. I think we’ll see in two or three years.”

Few places in Waukesha County have noticed teen volunteerism slowing. At the Elmbrook Humane Society in Brookfield, teens have helped fill virtually every open slot in the schedule.

“And now that summer’s almost over, they’re already starting to sign up for Saturdays” and evening shifts, said volunteer coordinator Sandra LaRosa.

At Oconomowoc Memorial Hospital, 115 young people signed up for the summer volunteer program. The teens do everything from transporting patients to different departments to delivering mail and flowers to helping make crafts in the hospital’s adult day centers.

“They’re really quick with what they do,” said Tammy Fox-Husband, the hospital’s teen volunteer coordinator. “They like to be a part of something, and you can definitely see how they really gain skills over the summer.”

At Waukesha Memorial Hospital, teenagers and college students account for about one-quarter of the volunteer corps.

“It’s exciting when they fall into something they really enjoy,” said Cheryl Whiteford, coordinator of volunteer services for the hospital. “You can just see the difference it makes. The comments from patients and staff when a student’s on the unit are just great. It’s a change of pace from (working with) a mature volunteer.”

An Artistic Touch

Young volunteers also have been pivotal this summer at the Donna Lexa Community Art Center in Waukesha, where volunteer Jeff Albergo often puts in 20-hour weeks helping art instructors teach disabled students.

George Neureuther, the center’s executive director, said volunteers like Albergo make it possible for students to get more one-on-one attention.

“It just makes it so much better for our students,” Neureuther said. “It creates quite a few challenges for the staff when there aren’t volunteers to help. It makes a huge difference.”

Albergo, a 16-year-old Pewaukee High School student, said he started volunteering at the center for “unfortunately very selfish reasons”—to help build a resume to get into college.

What keeps Albergo coming back is his love of art and his admiration for the people he helps at Donna Lexa, many of whom are wheelchair-bound, visually impaired or struggling with other disabilities.

The admiration is mutual for Margot Williams, a nearly-blind artist who suffers from multiple sclerosis and who attends classes at the center.

One afternoon when Albergo placed his water color painting of the center’s founder under a large magnifying glass for Williams to see, her review was as glowing as the golden background of his painting.

“You should make sure they put a big, beautiful frame on it!” Williams said, pressing her eyes to the glass to admire his work. “Wow, kiddo—that is good.”

Albergo said he has gained “about 250 new friends” from working at the center, as well as a new outlook on life.

“I’m constantly walking out of here at the end of the day saying, ‘What do I have to complain about?’” he said. “The art these people dish out week after week is just phenomenal. You’d never know they have cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis. They just roll with the punches and they constantly amaze me.”

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