Service with a Smile
High school is a busy time filled with late-night studying and after-school activities. Even with all the pressures and full calendars, many local students still find time to give back to the community. Town&Style spoke with three teens who recognize the importance of lending a hand to those in need.
Some are born to be leaders. You could say that about Kaitlyn Mehlhouse, a senior at Westminster Christian Academy. The 17-year-old started volunteering with the Youth Council at St. Louis Children’s Hospital after hearing an announcement about the group at school. “I’m really interested in medicine and hope to become a doctor, so it sounded like the perfect volunteer opportunity for me,” she says.
A member of the Youth Council for four years now, Mehlhouse says it provides a creative way for teenagers in seventh through 12th grades to do projects with the hospital and interact with staff and patients. “One of my favorite events was putting on a prom for patients 12 years and older the last couple years,” she says. “I was the chair last year, so I was very involved in getting it organized. We held it in the atrium and made a play list. Stores lent us dresses for the night or people donated them, and we gave the boys shirts that looked like suits! We also had people donate their time to do hair, makeup and nails. It was really cool.”
Mehlhouse got even more involved last year when she was accepted onto the Executive Council, a 10- to 12-member group that creates the vision and mission of the Youth Council. “I had to apply for a spot and am currently serving my second year.” She takes her commitment seriously, offering to organize and volunteer at numerous events, like the recent Halloween party where patients were able to trick-or-treat at the hospital. Last year she worked in the sibling playroom every Sunday for three hours, babysitting the brothers and sisters of patients. “It makes you appreciate what you have a lot more,” she says. “I don’t often think about being healthy, but when you help people who are sick, it gives you a newfound gratitude for what you have.”
Her involvement goes beyond the hospital as well. Every Thursday, she helps with administrative duties for Friends of Kids with Cancer for two hours, and she donates her time once a month with Engage St. Louis to babysit Spanish-speaking children while their parents are at a Bible study. “I want to continue doing community service for the rest of my life,” Mehlhouse says. “Eventually I would love to use my skills as a doctor to travel to countries that need help.”
Chaminade senior O’Connor Richardson had never heard of local nonprofit Gateway Greening before he noticed one of its community gardens near his house in Lafayette Square. “I was in the eighth grade when I found it, and I needed service hours,” he recalls. “I decided to find out more about the organization, and when I went to the main garden downtown, I was in awe of what they were doing.” Gateway Greening’s mission is to provide St. Louisans with a fun and educational way to experience healthy living and sustainable, urban agriculture. It sponsors gardens throughout the St. Louis area, providing tools and seeds to get started.
“I started off working in the gardens, picking weeds and planting,” Richardson says. “Sometimes there were odd jobs, like washing work trucks and helping out at events.” What started as a way to fulfill an obligation for community service has evolved into much more. “I really started to like it,” Richardson notes. “It just felt nice to do good work.” He started asking a few friends to join him when he volunteered, and he eventually brought the program to Chaminade last year. “I emailed the director to see if he would be interested in having an affiliate at my school, and he liked the idea,” Richardson says. “He asked me to come up with a business plan, and I met with the advisory board to go over ideas. We came up with the formula to get a dedicated group of about 15 students to help out at various gardens.” Now, Gateway Greening hopes to bring the same model to other local schools.
Richardson says there are about 20 Chaminade students who are part of the program and willing to help when they can. Typical work days have around 10 students, doing anything from shoveling mounds of mulch and overhauling overgrown gardens to building patios and foundations for a work station. He says everyone involved enjoys the work. “When you’re doing service just because you have to, it’s not as rewarding,” Richardson says. “And sometimes you don’t feel like you really accomplish anything, but there is a visible difference when we leave the gardens.” He plans to continue his involvement even after graduation. “My brother Tommy, a sophomore, plans to keep it going at Chaminade,” Richardson says. “It’s good for students to get out in the city and meet the people who are working to expose problems. It feels nice to be involved in the solution.”
Many high school girls can look in their closet and pull out at least a handful of dresses suitable for prom or any other school dance. And many can’t. Those are the girls Natalie DeWitt, a junior at John Burroughs School, is trying to help through an effort she organized on her own, Prom Dress Share STL. “My mom actually saw a video of this single father looking for a prom dress for his daughter, and she offered to buy him one,” DeWitt recalls. “It made me realize that I had a bunch of dresses in my closet that I’d worn only once that would make other people really happy to have.”
Instead of just donating those dresses, DeWitt took it a step further and organized a website, promdresssharestl.com, where girls who need dresses and girls who are willing to donate dresses can visit to coordinate drop off and pick up. “I just started with my own closet and then asked some friends, and they all had a bunch, too,” the 16-year-old says. “From there, I asked the entire student body and then went to other schools.” Everything operates through the website, and DeWitt says she is storing the dresses at one location, where she hopes to host an event for girls to come shop before prom next spring. “I started this right before prom season last year, so we haven’t done a really big distribution yet,” DeWitt says.
The response has been huge. “We have a goal of collecting 500 dresses by prom season, and we’re really close right now,” she says. “It’s super exciting. I want to continue this next year and keep it going once I go to college.”
Photos: Bill Barrett