Students persist to find ways to serve

Madison Wilson, a 17-year-old senior at The Villages High School, helps a golfer while working the cash register at the Lady Lake Golf Driving Range as a volunteer through Florida’s Hometown USA Program.

In a time of uncertainty and closed doors, students at The Villages Charter School have worked double-time to rack up their usual volunteer hours and serve their community. Students this year have come up with a multitude of creative solutions to ensure their community outreach isn’t lacking, said Greg Brooks, the faculty adviser for the charter school’s National Honor Society, a nationwide service organization for high school students. It has been especially strange for senior Madison Sprowles, 18, who typically participates in tutoring elementary school children or leading them during Vacation Bible School as her volunteer work. “Volunteering this year has been extremely difficult compared to last year because there are so many COVID protocols and precautions that have made it difficult for me to physically be near others,” she said.

“This has made my volunteer options more limited this year, but that hasn’t stopped me from helping my community.”

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic closing off many service opportunities for students, such as reading to younger children or visiting those in nursing homes, the number of hours students put in has remained relatively the same as previous years, said Brooks, who is also a social studies dual-enrollment teacher at the charter school.

“As National Honor Society president, the officers and I have done our best not to let this lapse turn into a collapse, using a little creativity to make it a great year still,” said senior Isaac Cree, 17. “We participated in a wreath-laying ceremony, went caroling, made and distributed masks for COVID, made cards for our health professionals and, most recently, encouraged members to partake in online storytelling that will be used for elementary students.”

Every student in the organization must complete 12 hours of community service for the year. Those hours are made up of at least six hours of tutoring and six hours of other service activities, but they cannot overlap with hours that may be required through other clubs or organizations of which they are members.

Many students do far more than the hours required for National Honor Society as different scholarships and other programs, such as Bright Futures, require upwards of 100 hours.

Students are required to earn a different number of service hours depending on their grade level as the importance of volunteer hours increases each year, said Christina Murphy, The Villages Charter School activities director. Seniors have an average of 126 hours per student, juniors have an average of 55 hours per student, sophomores have an average of of 22 hours per student and freshmen have an average of two hours per student, as of documentation available March 1.

“With the theme of the year being COVID, one of our students, Abigail (Koubek), came up with the idea of making masks,” Brooks said. “We had over 50 masks that we donated to The Villages Regional Hospital in the fall.”

Another service project themed to pandemic-related restrictions was a way of working around the reading to children many students usually do for their hours.

For the past six to eight weeks, Brooks said, students have been recording themselves reading children’s stories. Several publishers have relaxed copyright restrictions because of the pandemic, which has allowed students to participate in this type of outreach.

“They’re reading stories and putting them in a shared guide for media specialists in elementary schools throughout the area to share with their classes,” Brooks said. “We’re going to continue that up through spring break.”

During the winter, she wrote cards to frontline workers thanking them, Madison said, and she also went to sing Christmas carols in nursing homes.

Other new or pandemic-conscious volunteer opportunities in which Madison and other National Honor Society officers have participated included more outdoor options, including park cleanups and laying wreaths on veterans’ graves before Christmas. Some socially distanced options they have come up with were hosting more food and school supply drives.

“By doing volunteer work I hope I make a difference in people’s lives by encouraging them to help others too,” Madison said. “I love making people feel like they are loved and cared for by others.”

Because National Honor Society is an academic organization in addition to having its service goals, Brooks said the students are required to get a certain number of volunteer hours by tutoring.

From 8-11 a.m. every Saturday, students will come in for “A Days,” or “Academic Days,” at the high school. There, they can receive help from their NHS peers in any given subject. This program is especially popular near the time for finals, Brooks said.

“It gives the opportunity to share their scholasticism with other students who are struggling,” he said.

Tutoring is one of the best ways to serve other fellow students, said Isaac, who participates in Boy Scouts and a local youth group in addition to his duties as president of the school’s National Honor Society chapter.

“We have so much to be grateful for,” he said. “It is important to give back. The best part is meeting other people who value the same thing and working together to improve others’ lives.”

Isaac said he also enjoys more active work, including building hiking trails or cleaning state parks.

“I think any volunteering is well worth your time, but I find great pleasure in knowing that a project is making a lasting difference,” he said.

This year has forced a lot of creativity from students, Brooks said. While several students have said this year has been a struggle, especially for those who are more homebound because of vulnerable family members or the decision to participate in the online academy for the year, there have been volunteer opportunities for everyone.

“I never would have thought of recording the children’s stories before,” he said. “There are some things that probably are not going to go away anytime soon. I think the creative part is something that will remain in coming years, and students will continue to come up with new ways of offering service projects that don’t necessarily require in-person activities.”

Senior writer Alexandria Mansfield can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5401, or alexandria.mansfield@thevillagesmedia.com.