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Students in Action: A New Generation of Volunteers

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While many Delaware residents celebrated Christmas Eve with family and friends, Coby Owens was patrolling the streets of Wilmington, worrying about whether the homeless had warm socks. It was hardly a glamorous crusade, but socks—which provide warmth and can prevent disease—are the least donated clothing items, so Owens and his fellow volunteers were making significant contributions to the lives of others. 

The University of Delaware junior was at it again on Martin Luther King Day, handing out socks, water bottles and food to those in need. His Owens Foundation aims to continue the work he did at Salesianum School, where, after joining the Students In Action program as a freshman, he discovered the fulfillment of volunteering to help others.

“SIA is building a group of young kids who are making a difference,” Owens says. “We are all interconnected.”

While at Sallies, Owens and other SIA members created a tutoring program for at-risk students in low-performing schools. “That’s not where it stopped,” Owens says. When an Oblate from the school moved to India, he let his former students know of the educational deficiencies where he was stationed. Salesianum SIA members helped raise $900,000 to build a school there. They also worked with other local students to raise funds to rebuild schools in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. 

SIA is part of the Jefferson Awards Foundation, the brainchild of Delaware philanthropist and public servant Sam Beard. Now in 43 Delaware schools and 124 more across the nation, Students In Action aims to create and train student leaders who develop volunteer programs in their communities and beyond. Using a standard curriculum that enables schools to implement the program with little initial cost or inconvenience, it helps to build a network of young people who, like Owens, embrace contributing to the lives of others and who want to encourage fellow students to join them.

“We want to teach them how to lead, engage and make an impact on their schools,” says Michele Fidance, national director of the Jefferson Awards. “They set goals, and we help train them to reach the goals.”

Beneath the three SIA pillars—leadership, engagement, impact—are seven goals that each school in the program strives for. Students are charged with building awareness throughout their academic communities, creating leadership teams, growing their volunteer rosters, raising funds to support their programs, gaining publicity and awareness for their good work, building partnerships with other schools and organizations in their communities, and developing new ways to improve their service efforts.

It isn’t an easy set of standards to meet, but those who are able to achieve all seven build skills that will allow them to thrive as they get older. They also learn how to operate successful networks capable of achieving a lot. As schools achieve the goals, they receive recognition locally and nationally. SIA’s goal is to build a network of student leaders who can create a nationwide service movement. Anyone who knows Beard understands that there is no objective too great for him to tackle—and usually achieve.

“We are training kids to develop life-long leadership skills,” Beard says. “They are learning how to put a plan together, how to put a team together and how to accomplish goals.

“We are changing their lives.”

The students undergo 24 hours of classroom training from faculty and staff advisers who then oversee the projects and their implementation. “It’s still student-driven,” Fidance says. Twice a year, SIA members receive leadership training at workshops designed to help them reach the seven goals. One of the workshops covered marketing and media “muscle” and taught students how to leverage the press to gain attention for their work.

The seminars are practical and provide excellent guidance and ideas for the young men and women in SIA, but the most rewarding parts of the events are the bonds created by the students who are eager to learn about what others are doing and how alliances can be formed to further their efforts.

“You build connections with kids you never would have spoken with before,” Owens says. “When I was in high school, I made connections with schools in Dover and Seaford.”

Some of the leaders are fortunate enough to attend conferences in Washington, D.C., and other parts of the country. Owens has visited Florida, Ohio, Minnesota and New York, and he remains in contact with people he met while there. “We’re building a group of young kids who are making a difference,” he says. “We are all interconnected.”

There is a competition piece to SIA: Schools vie to accomplish tasks and teach various levels of achievement. And that suits Sgt. Richard Hurt. Leader of the Junior Army ROTC program at Cape Henlopen High School, Hurt had been running volunteer programs for his students for several years before the school launched its SIA initiative. His is an all-business approach, and those students who understand quickly how important it is to volunteer for SIA programs get the benefit of his approval.

And sometimes food is involved.

“If the kids see their friends participating, and they think there is pizza or hamburgers at the end of the rainbow, they want to be there,” Hurt says.

Cape Henlopen has won a Jefferson Award for its programs three straight years and completed 20 different events in 2015 alone. Hurt estimates that his students have impacted more than 6,000 people in the state this year. Much of the work is done with Harbor Health Care. During the Christmas holidays, students sang carols and gave gifts to patients there. This year, the program is expanding to include the Home of the Brave shelter for homeless veterans.

Hurt’s JROTC students make up much of the Cape Henlopen SIA team, and their commitment and hard work have resulted in a Gold designation for the school.

“The kids are learning how to get things accomplished,” Hurt says. “It’s a lot of extra work for them, but the reward is greater than their complaining about how much they are doing.

“SIA is about getting kids to understand that community service is an extension of what they are doing already in the Junior ROTC.”

For Charter School of Wilmington teacher Regina Fody, SIA is not only part of her role at the school, but a family affair. Her son, Christopher, now a junior in college, was involved in the program for two years at Wilmington Charter. Because of his involvement, Fody understands why more than 100 students apply to SIA each year. Unfortunately, she can only choose 40. Of those, five or six are on the “Executive Council” and work on a daily basis with Fody to plan and execute the programs.

One of the main beneficiaries of Wilmington Charter’s SIA efforts is the B+ (Be Positive) Foundation in Wilmington, which was formed in 2007 to provide financial and emotional support for families of children who are undergoing cancer treatment. It also helps fund cancer research. Students raise money for the foundation by selling hot chocolate, pretzels and T-shirts to the school community. Its main event is the annual B+ Charter-thon, a dance at which the final total raised is revealed. Last year, the SIA program contributed more than $34,000 to the foundation.

There are also efforts on behalf of A.I. duPont Hospital for Children and for Norman Oliver’s annual turkey drive in Wilmington. Charter School students team with kids from other schools to gather and deliver the birds to underprivileged residents. Last year’s drive resulted in more than 3,000 turkeys distributed. Wilmington Charter is so committed to the program that it has reached Ambassador status and has been given an eighth objective: mentoring other schools. Its students will present at two conferences about their successes in an effort to inspire others. They also take to social media to recruit members.

“It’s great for our students to talk to other kids in the area,” Fody says. “They all get so much out of it. It’s great leadership training for high school students and does a great job promoting volunteerism.”

Now and in the future.

Sam Bear (right) stands with Coby Owens, who got his start in
philanthropy thanks to Beard’s Jefferson Awards Foundation. 
(Photo by Joe del Tufo)

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