A New Teen Spirit

A New Teen Spirit

April 30th, 2012 Merrell McGinness in Local Regional News

Alizeh Ahmad helped build an all-girls' school in Pakistan. Kayee Ensign and Annie Paden contributed toward clean water in third-world countries. Jacqueline Adams wrote a grant for struggling students in Kingston, Jamaica. This summer, a group of McCallie students will assist battered women in Bolivia. Students in Ooltewah, East Brainerd and Harrison have provided countless hours of assistance to help repair homes damaged by tornadoes. Across Hamilton County Schools, senior projects alone account for charitable efforts supporting everything from pets to the homeless, raising funds for disease research as well as children's playground equipment.

And these teenagers are doing all of these things before they are old enough to vote.

In a time usually rife with melodramas, insecurities and self-absorption, more and more teenagers are turning to philanthropy. And it isn't your run-of-the-mill soup kitchen shift. In addition to running races, building houses and selling t-shirts, teenagers are spearheading their own fundraising events, often with a global focus. In February, students at Girls Preparatory School organized a benefit concert to raise money for Freeset, a fair-trade business that provides employment for women trapped in India's sex trade. "I think it's empowering for them to feel like there's a bigger world out there and they can make a difference, especially when teenagers around them are fretting about prom dresses, grades or what shoes they're going to wear," says GPS Community Service Director Weesie Cook.

But the ladies aren't the only ones lending a helping hand. McCallie's Dean of Student Life Bob Bires is approached at least once a week with ideas for fundraising projects. "It's almost gotten to the point where I have to say no sometimes," says Bires, explaining they've had to institute school-centered guidelines.

Some of the student brainstorms led to the Joe Restaino Bone Cancer Awareness Walk, which honors a former student who lost his battle with the disease, as well as the Upper School Project, which began three years ago in reaction to the Haitian earthquake. The industrious 9th through 12th graders raised $6,000 just by selling t-shirts. This year, the project will support the Bolivian mission trip.

But this impressive do-good attitude isn't all focused abroad. In fact some of the most popular high school volunteer and fundraising opportunities are focused on the less fortunate in our own community, including Habitat for Humanity, Chattanooga Area Food Bank, Northside Neighborhood House, Hospice and Bethel Bible Village, just to name a few.

At The Baylor School, approximately 90 students each term elect to spend one hour a day, four days a week tutoring children in the Westside and Harriett Tubman communities as well as Hardy Elementary through Girl's Inc. When the mentoring program began 16 years ago, Director of Community Programs Joli Anderson recalls taking three students in her car every day. Now they have buses.

"When you tutor the same child day after day you really get to know them," explains Anderson. "It goes beyond tutoring; there's a deep friendship formed and the students gain a better understanding of the challenges that so many in our community face."

Earlier this year, student leaders within the community service group along with their tutees gave a presentation to Chattanooga City Council on the gang situation in the city. This understanding also led Aliza Cohen to organize a barbecue the past few years for the Harriett Tubman community, inviting all residents, fellow Baylor tutors and even law enforcement to foster a more positive relationship. She funded the event through Baylor's grant writing program. Beginning in 2000, the program walks the students through the process of researching and writing a grant then helps them execute their plan if they receive funding.

Fellow grant writer Jacqueline Cohen helped fund a choir in a struggling school in Kingston, Jamaica, where she traveled with Baylor's yearly Spring Break service trip. Witnessing the need firsthand, she realized the award-winning choir couldn't even afford robes, let alone travel expenses for competitions.

And the impact of these students goes far beyond writing a check. During the devastating April tornadoes last year McCallie students were engaged in clean-up efforts before any other school was back in session. In addition to clearing debris, they also donated 95 pints of blood during a relatively short amount of time.

At Baylor, almost every junior and senior participates in the school's MLK Day, a day of service benefitting more than 20 area nonprofits ranging from McKamey Animal Shelter to nursing homes. At GPSPS, students from an environmental sciences class planted a garden as a class project, donating the bounty to the Food Bank.

What is perhaps most impressive is that community service is not required at any of these schools. "Fifteen years ago the community service thing was new enough to where you could use that as your angle to get into a pretty good college," says Bires, now entering his 29th year at McCallie.

"But now it's so pervasive that the rewards are a lot more intrinsic than that. For the most part these guys are doing this because they want to, not because they have to. I think that sets you up for future citizens who want to be involved and be on the board of the United Way or fulfilling some sort of civic responsibilities when they're adults."

Anderson agrees, explaining that while the number of students involved has increased, the desire to make a positive change has remained constant. "This is a very active, industrious group," she says. "The students want to do it; no one is forcing them and that's a pretty beautiful thing to watch. Doing for others is contagious. You think about wanting to make this world a better place - I see that every time a student walks through my door."