Maine teens’ community service projects celebrated at Fenway Park

Posted April 30, 2014, at 9:45 a.m.
Last modified April 30, 2014, at 7:44 p.m.

BOSTON, Mass. — Shoveling snow for someone might seem like a small favor, but under certain circumstances, it’s huge.

Hannah Will and Danielle Sparks know. Despite their busy teenage lives, they visited an elderly man’s house every time it snowed this winter and scooped away the mess, eliminating for him one of the undoable tasks that could mean the difference between staying in his own home and moving to an assisted living facility.

“He really wanted to live at home,” said Hannah Will, a junior at York High School, en route to an all-expenses-paid Red Sox game Tuesday that served as a reward for her good deeds, though she said she received the real reward months ago.

“It feels good to help someone who can’t help themselves,” she said.

Will and Sparks are part of Volunteers of America’s High School Action Teams, a program that involves dozens of students from four high schools in southern Maine. Though the projects vary, the theme is connecting youths with their community, oftentimes across generations. It’s not just young and old people connecting; sometimes their interests intermingle in surprising ways.

Ali Muller and Allison Coburn, seniors at Thornton Academy, took that to the extreme when they introduced senior citizens from a nearby nursing home to video game bowling on a Nintendo Wii. The competition was fierce.

“We just put up posters and they showed up,” said Coburn. “We bowled.”

In return, the older folks introduced the teenagers to bingo.

Video games? Bingo? What could possibly be the value of that? In a word, companionship. In another word, compassion.

The chartered bus trip to Fenway on Tuesday, sponsored by the Major League Baseball Players Trust and Moody’s Collision Centers of Maine, has become an annual tradition for Volunteers of America. On board were about 40 VOA Action Teams from Brunswick High School, Thornton Academy, Poland Regional High School and York High School. Tuesday’s game was a test of fortitude because of the cold weather, but the experience was warmed by a 7-4 Red Sox victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Like shoveling, Wii bowling or bingo, taking them out to a ballgame seems sort of trivial and beside the point of the VOA program, but as Brunswick High Athletic Director Jeff Ramich said, sometimes it’s the small things that go a long way.

“We’re fortunate to be able to share our personal experiences with our kids,” he said. “A trip to Fenway, that’s the epitome of a great experience all the way around.”

Experience. That’s another tenet of the program. What’s it like to have a conversation with someone whose dementia sometimes causes them to repeat things over and over again? Will and Sparks know.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to know what to say,” said Sparks. “Even if they don’t respond, they’re happy you’re there. You can tell because they’re smiling.”

What’s it like to feed the hungry? Brunswick High School freshmen Lincoln Sullivan and Christian Glover know. They’ve spent months collecting food from multiple sources — including their classmates — and donating it the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program.

“It just makes me feel good to help out in the community,” said Sullivan.

What’s it like to help a sick man declutter his home and help kids learn to read, both at the same time? Poland Regional High School sophomores Katelyn Smith and Amanda Hesketh know. They took more than 1,000 unsold books from a man who had been in the publishing industry, sorted them and gave them to third- and fourth-graders. The experience may well have changed the course of their lives.

“It’s a great program because you get to meet different people and experience different situations,” said Smith. “It gets you into the community.”

“It made me realize I like to help people, so I’ve decided I want to be a surgeon,” said Hesketh.

Rita Maines, who works in the Brunswick High athletic department and helps lead the school’s Action Team, said watching empathy and compassion take root in young people’s hearts is inspiring.

“They understand what this program is all about,” she said. “They’re not involved because of a trip to Fenway. They would do these things anyway.”