September 27, 2017 — “Every one of us is part of the community we’re in. You’re either contributing or detracting from it.”
This is what Marina Hunt, a graduate of the Spence School, took away from her high school volunteer experience. Marina joined a panel of student volunteers at #PayItForward, a forum on youth community service hosted by LSA Family Health Service and Convent of the Sacred Heart School.
Additional speakers included Adam Garner of DoSomething.org; Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist and certified school psychologist; Dr. Cappy Collins, a pediatrician who engages youth in community health programs; Naomi Varnis, an admissions director at Columbia University; and India LaRoda, Miss India America 2017 and a former Special Olympics volunteer with extensive service experience.
Audience members included a mix of students, parents and educators. Their main questions were: what kind of service experience is most valuable for middle and high school students? How can they get started? And how does it help them in the long term?
Naomi Varnis said, when she’s considering college applications “there is no one right type of service. It’s about the quality of engagement that you have.”
For example, she said, volunteering with an organization over a long period shows that a student is really committed to its mission. “That kind of work can help students understand their role in the community.”
“When you are volunteering you are figuring out who you are as a person, how you interact with the world, and how you engage with other people,” said Dr. Sanam Hafeez. She pointed out that the teen years are essential years for self discovery, and volunteering can play a positive role in helping teens understand and define themselves.
“Being a professional, doesn’t mean wearing a suit and tie. It can be giving someone a box of cereal so their children can have food in the morning, or a bag of rice so they can have food at night.”
– Cristo Rey student Nathanael Hinds, on what he learned as a volunteer
The student panelist shared how volunteering changed their view of the world and of themselves. “Through service, I have become more of an activist,” said Grace Wilson, student body president of Convent of the Sacred Heart who taught young children at the school’s student-run HEART summer camp.
Nathanael Hinds, a student of Cristo Rey New York High School who volunteered at the LSA food pantry throughout his sophomore year in high school, said volunteering opened his eyes to careers that can make a difference in the world. “Being a professional,” he said, “doesn’t mean wearing a suit and tie. It can be giving someone a box of cereal so their children can have food in the morning, or a bag of rice so they can have food at night.”
For students who don’t know where to start when it comes to volunteering, India LaRoda’s advice is for students to look to their own interests. “Think about what you’re passionate about,” she said. “That will make you want to volunteer.” Her own experience volunteering with the Special Olympics in middle school inspired her current work as a behavioral interventionist for children with special needs.
Adam Garner, campaigns manager at DoSomething.org, an online platform that motivates young people to make positive change, described the spirit of service as the desire to help others without the need for personal recognition. He summed it up saying simply: “If you can help, you help.”
#PayItForward was organized by the Parents Committee of LSA Family Health Service, a group committed to engaging youth in service at the East Harlem nonprofit. The event was cohosted by the Covent of the Sacred Heart School and sponsored by Carnegie Hill Neighbors and Gourmet Garage.