Stretching to help
Serving meals at homeless shelters, working with under-privileged kids at day cares and sorting through donations at Goodwill might not sound like routine activities for teenagers. But many junior high students in Woodbury are making them a priority.
Many local churches are offering a student-based volunteer program, Summer Stretch, and the participation levels are on the rise.
The summer program, which incorporates volunteer opportunities in the morning with leisure activities in the afternoon one day a week, attempts to "stretch" the minds of the junior high volunteers by exposing them to many different types of volunteer work, said Guardian Angels Church Youth Minister Heidi Tousignant.
"It's so fun for that age, they love to be with their friends and the program lets them do service work and be with their friends at the same time," Tousignant said. "It's what they want to do."
The Guardian Angels' Summer Stretch program has increased five fold since the implementation of the program in 1998, Tousignant said. She said she thinks the word-of-mouth communication and the age of the children attribute to the growth.
"I can't believe the growth," she said. "If one of them likes it, they tell their friends and they bring their friends."
Courtney Reisner, a Woodbury Junior High ninth-grader, participated in the program this past summer and said she enjoys the program because she can spend time with friends while helping people.
"I just feel like before (the program) I didn't think kids could really do a lot to make a difference," she said. "But this shows we can really help people and they really appreciate our help."
She said her favorite volunteer experiences were helping elderly people shop for groceries and playing with kids at a St. Paul day care. She said even though she will be too old to participate in the program next year, she will continue to volunteer in her spare time.
Reisner's mother, Patrice, said her children have more of an appreciation for their lives after participating in the program.
"They weren't always exposed to other programs out there," she said. "Courtney was affected by (the work) at the day care. She felt these kids didn't have the same opportunities and positive reinforcement that she has had."
Another local church has also experienced the popularity of the program and seen the effects that the volunteer program has on the students.
Woodbury United Methodist Church began the program two years ago and has seen the participants double in that time, said Director of Youth Ministries Amy Fuller. She said implementing the program was one of the most worthwhile investments in her ministry career.
"Kids are excited to make a difference," she said. "It's an easy way for them to get involved in the community and see the Twin Cities (through volunteer work)," she said.
Fuller said the kids who participate in the program are more willing to seek out service opportunities and give up their time to volunteer work than kids who do not participate.
"Adolescents are like sponges," she said. "It's a great time to make an impact on their future choices."
Woodbury High School 10th-grader Natalie Hisdahl participated in the program through Woodbury United Methodist Church and said her experience volunteering was positive.
"I like to do service projects because I like helping people," she said.
Hisdahl said the experience helped her relate to others who come from a different background.
"Woodbury is a different world from even St. Paul," she said. "It's a good opportunity for kids to go out and see how things are in the city, it's not the same (experience) as if they went to town with their parents."
Tousignant said the program began in 1998 at the Mary, Mother of the Church parish in Burnsville. Now, 71 churches in the metro region participate in the program, which means approximately 3,000 junior high teens are donating their time to volunteer work once a week.