Learning to give

In some circles, high school sports players have a reputation as being a bit spoiled or entitled, especially when athletes are involved in hazing or bullying, but a group of Alpena area varsity athletes are bucking this cliche by freely giving up their free time during the summer with volunteering.

Former AHS track runner Amanda Dort recently found herself teaching a group of elementary students about invasive species on the Island Park as part of the River Rats group.

The River Rats holds a variety of educational summer events for elementary students, utilizing volunteers from various youth groups including the Boys and Girls Club Youth Volunteer Corps and the AHS Science Olympiad Team. They teach students about the marine life of the Alpena area.

“I’m really interested in biology and plan on majoring in biology next year. I’m especially interested in marine biology, so this is a perfect fit,” she said. “It feels really great to be able to help teach (the students) and learn about this stuff at the same time.”

Her volunteering time including giving a short lecture differentiating between native and invasive species in the Great Lakes and played a brief “fishing” game with the children, in which they caught paper cutouts of the species discussed. They had to identify and throw back invasive species.

Dort was not the only AHS student with the River Rats. Senior tennis player Samyak Harsh, who has worked with the River Rats for a year, currently volunteers at the hospital and has been involved with the Boys and Girls Club.

“I don’t have a job, so (volunteering) is an alternative. I think it’s more valuable to give your time doing this kind of work, than worrying so much about money,” Harsh said.

Harsh volunteers his time in the hospital library, checking in books, sorting forms, preparing CPR charts and other general paperwork jobs. Volunteering has tangible benefits for Harsh beyond the satisfaction of giving back to his community.

“I’m definitely going into the medical field, so (volunteering) is preparing me for the environment, helping me get used to the atmosphere I’ll be working in,” he said.

Some student athletes decide to give back to their team by volunteering after they graduate. Recent graduates Brenna Bourdage and Ami Milligan are volunteering as teachers and coaches for various volleyball camps for the junior varsity team throughout their time at AHS.

“Ami and Brenna have really stepped up to help out the team. It’s a great way for them to give back to the team and learn more about the sport they love,” volleyball coach Melissa Doubek said.

Students who volunteer learn valuable lessons about themselves, their strength of character and what they are willing to do to contribute to their community, as well as valuable life lessons they can apply to tangible situations later on in life.

“I’ve learned a lot about time management and organization skills (while volunteering). My time management is a lot better than it used to be, and I’m better at managing things that I never would have been able to before,” Harsh said.

Harsh is not alone at ARMC. Senior basketball player Gavin Aikens, senior tennis player Noah Barney-Steinke, and former AHS tennis player Jane Spann all volunteer. Their duties range from surgical lounge duties, where they provide comfort to family and friends of patients in surgery, to lobby greeter.

Volunteer Director Marlene Pear said volunteers are normally over the age of 60, and student volunteers are a fresh of breath air for the hospital employees, patients and other volunteers.

“We enjoy working with them a lot and watching them grow. They really gain a lot of self confidence while they’re volunteering. Most of them are thinking of going into the medical field, and this (volunteering) helps them make that decision,” Pear said.

Other volunteer services available at ARMC include staffing blood drives, information kiosks, the gift corner, escorting surgical patients, driving a courtesy van and knitting booties and hats for newborns.

Volunteering often crosses generational lines. Cross country coach Joy Bullis has volunteered with elementary summer sports camp and at the children’s ministry at her church, and has tried to impress the spirit of giving onto her athletes.

“I don’t think that (volunteering) is stressed enough. Most kids don’t realize how important it is to make connections in the community, learn how to be a helper, and to build a resume,” she said.

Several athletes on her team have volunteered for various groups, such as 2013 graduate and AHS female athlete of the year, Emily Duncan, 2013 graduate Jacob Benson, senior Alyssa Puryear, senior Hannah MacDonald and senior Ryan Day.

“All that I have spoken to love their jobs. They feel rewarded and confident. I think they learn how to be patient compassionate helpers, thinking of others before themselves,” she said.

The Boys and Girls Club is another place a lot of student athletes volunteer. The Youth Volunteer Corps at the high school helps attract a lot of athletes from a variety of different performing levels.

A lot of junior varsity players, such as football and baseball player Kelton Schuleter and softball player Sarah Bodus help out at the club in the summer. The Boys and Girls Club generally attracts a lot of younger volunteers, though varsity players such as graduating softball player Shannon Kapala have volunteered there in the past.

Volunteer activities performed by the Youth Volunteer Corps include general maintenance at Island Park, packaging food for needy families with NEMSCA, running a recycling program at the club and mentoring activities with the younger members at the club. Many volunteers stay in the program for years, beginning as mentored elementary students, and staying on long into high school.

Although volunteering offers athletes many ways to grow as people, many volunteers find it also has many benefits beyond personal improvement.

“A lot of our volunteers get more excited about college and going to the next level, as many volunteers end up using their experience to get scholarships. Volunteering is a great way to build new opportunities, and network with people,” former Youth Volunteer Corps leader Brad Somers said. Somers is the Boys and Girls Club director.

The benefits of volunteering are far reaching for the student athlete. Not only do they get the chance to give back to their community, they are helping to prepare for their future and becoming better people with a stronger grasp on the importance of giving.

“The biggest change I’ve seen (as volunteers progress through the program) is in the maturity level. Once the kids gain the resources to give back to the community, they start building the skills and resourses to become more well rounded people, students and adults,” Somers said.

Eric Benac can be reached via email at ebenac@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5690. Follow Eric on Twitter @EricBenac.