It’s 4 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon, and the halls of Webb Middle School are growing quiet. However, three students aren’t part of the stampede of their peers racing for the exits. They’re in a classroom on the second floor, making phone calls to local business owners to enlist help in putting on a St. Patrick’s Day pancake breakfast for families staying at the Ronald McDonald House. These are the students of United Way for Greater Austin’s Volunteer Project Leaders program, and this isn’t their first rodeo.
The kids in the VPL program at Webb have been conducting volunteer projects to help out around their community since the program’s inception four years ago. They’ve organized and led campus cleanups, campaigns to gather thank you notes for school librarians, community needs assessments, and a host of other initiatives designed to encourage their classmates and neighbors to give back to their community in St. John’s.
While the idea of middle school students dedicating so much of their free time to philanthropic projects may seem extraordinary to many, it’s a no-brainer to the VPL kids.
“What would you do if you just saw someone throwing trash around your neighborhood?” says LaDascious, an 8th grader who’s been a part of the program since he arrived at Webb Middle School.
He’s just left a voicemail for a manager at Kerbey Lane Cafe, a frequent UWATX collaborator, asking for pancake mix donations and any helping hands they could provide. Kids in the program get many opportunities to practice this sort of outreach, helping them to develop a set of communication and leadership skills that will be useful to them throughout their lives. Additionally, LaDascious believes being part of this group has taught him to think about people other than himself. According to Nikki Krueger, UWATX Director of Volunteer Engagement who oversees the program, that’s exactly the point.
Nikki believes that by providing students with the tools they need to create positive change in their communities at an early age, they’re instilling a “philanthropic gene” that will last a lifetime– and it seems to be working. Kids at each of the three VPL programs (Decker and Mendez also host their own chapters) echo LaDascious’s sentiments. Decker student Chrishana said because of the program, she now “look[s] at the world with a different viewpoint.” Her classmate, Jaylon, agreed stating, “It has taught me how to be a better person.”
In total, the three chapters have empowered about 150 students to better both themselves and their communities. That’s a lot of young philanthropists, and the work is just beginning.
It’s now 4:30 p.m. at Webb Middle School, and after a long day of classes the kids have hit their limit. They sprint out of the room and down the stairs with that boundless, restless energy unique to middle school students. It’s an energy they bring to everything they do – including volunteering – and, thanks to the VPL program, it’s an energy that’s helping make Austin greater.