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Rising Stars: Michigan Teens Making a Difference in their Communities

By Tammy Pitts, MNA Director of Communications & Marketing

He’s headed off to college this week, but 17-year-old Garret Lewis of Mason has been busy all year giving back.

Garret spent his senior year of high school volunteering in his community and raising money for Ronald McDonald House (RMHC). He says it’s important for young people his age to give back. “It’s a fantastic job experience. It gets you to know what the real world is all about.”

After all, not all teenagers are eating Tide Pods or taking part in the #cratechallenge or any other hair raising “challenges” that are going viral daily on TikTok. In fact, Generation Z has plenty of enthusiasm for helping out and donating their time. And due to the fact that this has been a tough season with the pandemic for many families, I find it heartwarming to know teens are making a difference in their small corner of the world.

Garret, who is the son of Michigan Nonprofit Association Business Intelligence Director, Jamie Lewis, is well-versed in volunteerism-- and not just because his mom is deeply vested in the nonprofit sector. Garret’s passion for RMHC started thanks to the supportive and comfortable stay his family experienced while his older brother received medical care in Saginaw. “Just being able to be close to him- where he was- and still having the family intact, it was really special,” said Garret. “And so, I’ve always appreciated what they do.” Belle Isle Clean Up

Not only did the Mason teenager raise money for RMHC this past spring, but he also donated his time to the Mason community. "There has definitely been an increase in youth wanting to help in the community," said Betsy Collins, National Honor Society adviser at Mason High School. "The kids that I have been working with have a strong desire to do something during this pandemic that helps improve the lives of others.  I would release a sign up genius for a volunteer opportunity and it would be full in under a minute.  These kids want so much to get out there and make a difference." Garret was a tutor and mentor to younger students --eagerly hopping on Zoom calls to help fourth graders navigate the virtual world of learning.

And he didn’t stop there. As a member of the National Honor Society, Garret and his friends rolled up their sleeves and got to work. They cleaned up parks, helped out at the local animal shelter, and volunteered at the Knights of Columbus fish fry.  "This past school year we had 41 senior members who participated in 2695.15 hours of community service on top of maintaining good grades and demonstrating strong leadership and character," Collins said.

Teens making a difference

Grow Jackson Large Group with shovelsThe Mason students aren’t the only ones making an impact. Teens across Michigan are pitching in to help out. Dozens of young interns at Consumers Energy got their hands dirty volunteering at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids last month. “I could not be more proud of how our interns accepted the challenge to volunteer this summer,” said Carolyn Bloodworth, MNA board of directors, and executive director of corporate giving at Consumers Energy Foundation. “Most of them are working virtually and they embraced our corporate culture to give back to the communities we serve, often inviting other coworkers to join them or taking part in larger community events sponsored by the company.”Grow Jackson Large Group with shovels

The Consumers Energy interns also volunteered at Potter Park Zoo in Lansing, The Martin Luther King Center in Jackson, Habitat for Humanity Genesee County, the Ranney Park Clean Up in Lansing and more. “They didn’t just make a positive impact on the nonprofits they supported, they made an impact on all of their coworkers, too,” Bloodworth said. “We are very grateful!” 

3441E923 6A43 4979 B00C 17D613883A0ANorth of Flint in Michigan’s Thumb area, seniors at Vassar High School spent the summer filling backpacks for foster children in their rural district. MNA VISTA Pam Ill, and Sarah Piazza, art teacher and program mentor at Vassar Public Schools, were involved with a project called Human Service Pathway. Vassar High School students stuffed backpacks with all the essentials a foster child would need such as pillows, blankets, toiletries, school supplies and even Vassar school shirts. 

“It was really important for our students to give back because it allowed them to realize that their peers come from all walks of life,” explained Piazza. “It64992708 F653 4C4F ACA6 C3CA3C07E41D was a wonderful and humbling experience for them.” She says the welcome backpacks are crucial to helping new students adapt to their new environment. “Some students are leaving their home for the first time and coming to our school. It’s important for them to feel welcomed and safe when walking through our hallways.”

Getting teens involved

I believe once teens see the powerful impact they can have on inspiring change within their communities, they are inspired to do even more. Garret agrees that teens do want to make a difference, but says access could be a problem. “A lot of people are willing to help but they just don’t know the people or how to go and do it. Some of them might not even want to go and look for the opportunities, but if presented with them, they’ll go out and get the job done.”

As students return to school this week and next, schools and community centers are urged to advertise volunteer opportunities that are available for teens. Whether it’s tutoring other students after school, or helping out at a local shelter,  teens want to get involved. "Giving back to the community provides young people with a feeling of belonging and increases their pride and investment in their community," said Collins. “It’s a fantastic job experience and you learn what the real world is all about,” Garret added. “Even if it’s with some of your peers, it’s still getting out there and working with them. It’s a valuable skill.”

Piazza says young people can pitch in and help foster children in their schools and communities by simply being their friend and extending kindness. “Just being aware that students come from all walks of life and showing empathy can really go a long way,” she said.

The future is bright

G Go BlueGarret is off to the University of Michigan where he plans to continue his studies to become a physical therapist so that he can continue helping people. He says he will be looking for opportunities on campus where he can donate his time. His message to other youth is for them to connect with their community and get involved. “I think if there are opportunities available to volunteer even just to meet new people, you should always take it,” Garret said. “You don’t know what you’ll get from it, until you do it.”



Teen volunteer opportunities: https://bit.ly/3gwAnox
To submit a story idea for MNA’s blog: tpitts@mnaonline.org