Teenagers often get a bad rap for their inability to disconnect from iPods and smartphones and plug into the people and places around them. But four big-hearted teens in Beaverdale are proving that youth can be just as social-service savvy as they are social-media savvy. Through their diverse volunteer efforts, these local students are working hard to change lives in their community, their county and their world.
More than cookies and badges
A Girl Scout since kindergarten, 16-year-old Renee Elliott was helping out at her mom’s in-home daycare when she had an idea.
“I realized that some of the kids that were going to the elementary school weren’t getting all the opportunities that I got in elementary school for reading,” she says. “So I decided that I would present an idea to the rest of the girls in my [Girl Scout] troop.”
That idea turned into a two-month-long community service project. Elliott, along with two other girls, were soon leading a group of K–5 students at Samuelson Elementary School in a free, after-school literacy program. Here, students read books, played games and completed art projects. And Elliott’s literacy project did more than help her community; it also earned each troop member a Bronze Award, the highest-achievable honor for a Girl Scout Junior.
For the past fours years, Elliott has also volunteered with Meals from the Heartland, an organization that distributes nutritious food packages to families in Iowa and around the world. Whenever they can, she and her youth group from West Des Moines Christian Church mobilize with other volunteers to box up and ship out the healthful meals.
Why does she do it? That’s simple.
“As a person who is able to help others, I feel like I should,” she says. “It’s important to the community and to the people that are being helped in the process — it’s just important to do it.”
When she’s not packaging meals or serving with the Girls Scouts, Elliott, a sophomore at Hoover High School, enjoys sketching scenery and painting abstract art. She’s even saved her hard-earned Girl Scout cookie money for a summer visit to her hopeful alma mater, Savannah College of Art and Design, where she aims to become a professional artist.
Serving up book smarts
Although she’s just an eighth-grader at Merrill Middle School this year, Caroline Bright, 14, has already served as a “volunteen” for nearly three years at the Franklin Avenue Public Library in Beaverdale.
Bright remembers listening intently as a library representative told her then-fifth-grade class about the youth summer reading program. Bright knew she wanted in.
“I tried it out because it sounded fun,” she says. “And I have just [volunteered] ever since.”
Depending on the season, Bright spends between one and three volunteer hours each week organizing books for the winter sale, making spaceship crafts and tooth fairy pouches for children’s hour, or doing her favorite activity — distributing reading ledgers and prizes to students participating in the Pre-K–12 summer reading program.
“For every five hours they read, they can bring in [their reading logs] and get a prize,” she says, emphasizing how much fun she’s had giving away T-shirts, notebooks, flashlights and toys in exchange for hours read.
Elliott estimates she’s registered between 200 and 300 students for the summer program. As a teen, she says, it’s important to give back to her friends and neighbors because of the positive ripple effect that results.
“Volunteering helps our community, and once you start volunteering and see that you like helping people, or helping your community, you can volunteer with other [organizations],” she says.
When she’s not carting books or scanning barcodes, Bright enjoys playing imaginative games with her three younger siblings, making music on her flute or piano, or reading a book by her favorite teen fiction author Sarah Dessen.
And while this eighth-grade student doesn’t yet know what she wants to be when she grows up, she does have her collegiate sights set high — admission into the Ivy Leagues.
Breaking down social barriers
With his focus on homelessness and those struggling with disabilities, Charlie Flippen, 15, is helping make Polk County a happier, healthier place thanks to his work at Community Youth Concepts (CYC), an all-youth volunteer organization headquartered in Beaverdale.
Flippen, who has limited muscle control in both hands because of a medical complication at birth, joined CYC about three years ago as part of the Iowa Disabilities Group.
“I joined the group because I wanted to know more people, and I wanted to see how I could get involved with my community,” he says. “[CYC] is a good place to meet new people and to understand that although you have a disability, it does not make you disabled.”
And he certainly hasn’t let disability slow him down. Last April, Flippen and a group of teens from the Iowa Disabilities Group talked about bullying at the Family to Family Iowa Conference, an annual meeting for disabled youth and their families.
“I experienced bullying in middle school, and it made me feel kind of dumpy for a little while, [but] then I picked myself back up again,” says Flippen, who also advised students to share their struggles with a helpful teacher, counselor or principal. “I wanted to get up there and reach out to the people who are also victims of bullying, [so they] really know that they have a place in the world.”
Since February, Flippen has also joined forces with CYC’s Public Health Youth Advisory Board, which discusses and addresses pressing youth health issues, such as eating right and staying fit and active. The group also plans service projects based on these health initiatives, like a recent trip to Plymouth United Church of Christ to bag peanut butter sandwiches and trail mix for the homeless.
“Homeless people don’t have a lot of access to healthy food, so we thought that maybe we could feed these people healthy food who are struggling to make ends meet for their families — and just give them a nice meal to keep them going for the day and week,” he says.
In the future, Flippen says he also wants to reach out to children who are homeless or in foster care, to let them know “something good will happen to them and they won’t always be in a bad situation.”
When he’s not volunteering, the Roosevelt High School freshman has fun hiking with his family, joining in church activities and hosting dinner parties where he grills up his specialties — steaks and brats.
Although he’s contemplated a career in counseling or ministry, Flippen has no strict vocational plans to date. He knows that whatever he does, though, he wants to help people.
The spirit of giving
Upon entering as a freshman at Dowling Catholic High School, Hannah Zimmerman learned she was required to log 20 hours of community service each year. Today, the 18-year-old senior is pushing 250 service hours. And counting.
“When we first found out we were required to do service hours, it was more of an obligation,” says Zimmerman, who soon realized the more she helped others, the more she liked it. “There are a lot of things in this world that we can’t fix ourselves, but when we take the time and effort to [fix] the tiny piece of the world that we can, there’s not a feeling like it.”
Over the course of her high school career, Zimmerman has organized, led or participated in nearly 20 youth retreats at Dowling. This past Christmas, Zimmerman and a group of seniors also gave of their time to surprise a local family in need. The students collected money, clothes and toys and then hand-delivered the items in the form of a holiday gift basket.
“After all the collecting and all the work goes into it, we wrap everything up and we deliver it to the family,” she says. “Just to see their reaction is incredible.”
Zimmerman also enjoys serving at her local parish, Holy Trinity Catholic Church, where she has donated her time to a number of congregational activities, such as serving at the church omelet breakfast, mentoring youth on a weekly basis, and registering families for a photo directory.
So, what’s she learned from all these service hours?
“We’re not here living for ourselves,” she says. “If we can live our lives knowing that we’ve changed another life — just by the things that we do — I think that is the most important thing we could possibly be doing.”
In the fall, Zimmerman plans to attend Iowa State University, where she dreams of turning her passion for art and helping others into a design-related profession, such as graphic design, art education or art therapy.
After all, she says, life is best lived when it’s spent for others.