Thursday, February 20, 2003

Cape volunteers become brothers’ keepers

Published in the Current

Several Cape Elizabeth High School students, in cooperation with high school students from other towns and the United Way of Greater Portland, are trying to give homeless teenagers in the area a better shot at making it by providing them with a backpack filled with the essentials of daily life.

Leslie Preti, Whitney Turkanis, Hannah Botto, Mary Ann Chapman and Schuyler Armstrong are among a group called Youth Engaged in Service, or YES, getting teens involved in community service and leadership through the United Way.

They want to put together 50 backpacks, 25 for males and 25 for females, with toiletries, pens, phone cards, batteries and more. The catch is they have to do all the work themselves.

Jessica Esch, the United Way coordinator of the project, said her job is basically to facilitate the kids’ efforts and make sure they all stay more or less on track. It is up to the teens to decide what projects they want to undertake and to carry them out, Esch said.

“It’s a loose group because kids are so busy,” Esch said.

Students find out about it from their friends, who have been involved with it in previous years. “The word just kind of gets spread around the schools,” Botto said.

Three CEHS students were in YES last year, and five are in it this year. Some of the students involved found out about it through the Volunteer Club at the high school. Jill Dalfonso of South Portland, a student at Catherine McAuley High School in Portland, said her school’s Key Club is the way most students learn about YES.

The year’s first task is to decide what the group will focus on. “When we had our first meeting, we just kind of started yelling out random ideas,” Preti said.

They were inspired by a flyer Turkanis had found about the BluePack Project, an initiative giving school and basic hygiene supplies to children in Afghanistan.

“We decided we wanted to help people our own age,” Armstrong said. They are now out soliciting donations of goods and money from community members, businesses and non-profit organizations.

Some of the work involves writing formal grant proposals to organizations like the Libra Foundation.

Other efforts involve heading to a local dentist and asking for help buying toothbrushes, toothpaste and dental floss, or asking Sam’s Club in Scarborough for toiletries.

Donations of money are also helpful, and the students plan how they will spend the money, depending on how the solicitation goes for donations of actual products.

They also learn to revise their plans as they go along, determining – with the help of the staff at the Preble Street Teen Center – that deodorant and socks are more important than, say, playing cards.

They also ensure that each backpack has a personal touch, with a container of nice lotion for young women and shaving cream for the young men.