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Friday, 27 November 2015 08:42

DAYS Foundation challenges teens to take action for a better community

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WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- For years, Julie Supernaw has seen compassion kindled in young people.

Now she’s channeling it.

As the principal of St. Andrew’s Parish Elementary School for 19 years, and most recently as the former coordinator for the gifted and talented education program in the Elkhorn Area School District, Supernaw watched kids getting excited working on community service projects.

As they got involved in service work, teenagers in particular saw the problems that plagued their communities.

“High school kids tend to see problems and want to talk about them and complain, but they never took it to the next step until an adult challenged them,” Supernaw said. “I would listen to them and say, ‘Hmm. What are you going to do about it?’ Then they would either stop talking about it or start talking about solutions.”

To help teens make that next step, Supernaw started a nonprofit organization in March, the Delavan Area Youth Service Foundation.

DAYS is a clearinghouse where Delavan-area high school students can find community service volunteer opportunities through the organization’s website or create their own service projects for a need they see in the community. In some cases, students even can apply for grants through the organization for seed money for a project they’ve proposed.

If they’re not sure how to start their own project, students can turn to the DAYS website for ideas and a step-by-step general guide on how to proceed. If they want more direction, they can ask an adult mentor for advice. But the work itself is done by students.

Supernaw knows there’s already a push for service projects for high school students, from a service hours requirement for National Honor Society members to a community outreach subcommittee on the Delavan-Darien High School student council. She thinks DDHS and area churches have done a good job of getting young people involved in projects.

But DAYS is not another service club, Supernaw said. Rather, it’s a way to help young people realize their ideas for improving their community.

“Instead of saying, ‘Who’s going to do it?’ I’m trying to empower our high school kids to say, ‘What can I do about it?’” she said. “Volunteering gives you some experience with leadership and creative solutions to difficult problems, as well as working with all sorts of different people and situations.

“There are so many amazing things that happen when kids get involved in projects. They become other-centered. They become more proud of themselves. It builds this huge jump of self-esteem. In addition, they become prouder of their own community and we’re more likely to keep some of our great kids here, continuing to be community supporters.”

Supernaw wanted the project to start in Delavan.

“There are things that Delavan enjoys and is lucky to have -- diversity, a great community, great people,” she said. “But there are also huge struggles right here now.”

While all area high school students can participate in DAYS, only DDHS students are eligible to apply for foundation grants for their projects. Supernaw welcomes donations for grants as well.

Any area organization that needs volunteers may contact DAYS. Currently, the website lists only a handful of volunteer events, but Supernaw said schools, churches and organizations such as Lakeland Health Care Center have contacted her, and she’s confident more will join them.

“Adults are generally very willing to jump on board and be a part of something that kids are trying to do, so the community can kind of back them in a really exciting fashion,” she said.

It’s been a little more difficult to inform high school students about DAYS.

Supernaw has used social media sites like Facebook. She’s also asked several students she knows to serve as leaders who round up their friends for a project.

“High school kids do not call or text people they don’t know to volunteer,” she said.

One leader was Megan Rupnik, who was asked in July to create a place to entertain children at Delavan’s Scarecrow Fest in September.

A DDHS senior and former graduate of St. Andrew’s School, Rupnik is already a longtime volunteer. She went on a mission trip to help communities in New Orleans, rang bells for the Salvation Army and participated in events for cancer fundraising and suicide awareness. She put in 120 hours alone for one service project, volunteering weekly at the Java Joint, a Delavan coffeehouse that helps homeless women get back on their feet.

Her mentor for the project, Delavan Nursery Center teacher Trish Kumlander, said Rupnik was well-organized, coordinating with the high school’s art department for craft supplies and the physical education department for materials used in an obstacle course for the children.

Rupnik developed more than her organizational skills during the event. 

“I had reserved the space in front of the post office far ahead of time as the postmaster had to OK it,” she wrote in an email. “After the first hour or so, while I had kids participating, a man came up and told me I needed to move all of my stuff so that he could mow. I initially thought I was in the wrong as I am not an adult and he was, but ... I learned to be very firm and assertive, especially when he asked to speak to the person in charge and I realized that was me ... I let him know when we would be cleaned up so that he could come and do his job.”

She also saw how her volunteering made an impact.

“It felt so amazing to provide a free service to families ... “ she wrote. “I had multiple families ask me how much it all costs and when I responded that it was free they lit up and thanked me.”

One of the DDHS students Rupnik asked to help during the event, Michelle Johnson, has started her own DAYS service project -- a winter clothing drive that’s running now.

“I don’t want any child to have to miss recess and feel like an outsider because their parents can’t afford snowpants, boots and a coat,” Johnson wrote in an email. 

Johnson, whose Girl Scout troop annually participated in a community coat drive, even got Delavan’s Dutch Maid Cleaners to agree to clean the collected clothing free of charge.

Supernaw said the students she’s talked to are most concerned by poverty, homelessness and the isolation of the elderly.

“If you think about it, all these big problems are here in Delavan and Darien, too, just not on an international scope,” she said. “Your little bit of work here -- or what seems like a little bit of work -- impacts those big numbers. It makes the world a better place.”

To donate to DAYS, to find a volunteer opportunity, get an event listed or just learn more about the foundation, visit daysfoundation.org.

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