GREENFIELD — Standing in the muddy grass outside Greenfield-Hancock Animal Management, Garrett Janes reaches down to take a red rubber ball offered by one of the shelter’s pups.
He tosses the ball high into the air and watches amused as the dog bounces around excitedly, waiting for the toy to fall back to Earth. The dog catches it, runs forward to play again, and the cycle continues a few more times: Throw. Catch. Run.
These dogs, Janes said, are cooped up most of day. So a few times a week, he and several of his classmates at Eastern Hancock High School come to the shelter to give them some attention.
They visit as part of the school’s service learning class, which is just one of the many avenues through which young people can partner with local organizations and log volunteer hours.
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Leaders of these local nonprofits said the young volunteers are essential to their daily operations. While students explore their interests, learn new skills and boost their résumés before heading to college, they also help fill the gaps for organizations that can always use extra manpower.
And while they’re lending a hand, the young volunteers said there are countless lessons to be learned about the community around them.
While helping out at animal management, Janes and his classmates usually clean kennels and crates, give much-needed attention to the animals and help pair families looking to adopt with the right new pet, office manager Debbie Harris said.
This extra help is always appreciated because animal management has a small full-time staff, she said.
It’s a similar story at Edelweiss Equine-Assisted Therapy Center, a nonprofit organization with limited resources to put on its riding programs from those living with disabilities.
Emily Keenan, program coordinator at Edelweiss, said volunteers are the lifeblood of the riding center, whose roster of helpers is packed with youths.
When volunteers are helping out at the barn, they often assist on an array of tasks including grooming horses, cleaning stables and working closely with adults and children with disabilities.
“We would not be able to do what we do without our volunteers,” Keenan said.
‘It’s always humbling’
When Larkin Cooper first received her invitation to join her Mt. Vernon High School’s chapter of the National Honor Society, she was intrigued by the idea of giving back to her community and knew she wanted to be as heavily involved with the club as she could.
Now, the 17-year-old is the president of the organization, helping to oversee the work of 60 of her classmates and putting in more than the required 60 hours of community service.
Despite many visits to soup kitchens and nursing homes in the area, Cooper said her favorite place to work is inside her high school’s food pantry.
The experience has been eye-opening. Cooper said she knew working there would mean being in close contact with many needy families but said she never expected to see so many of her classmates stopping in to get groceries.
“It’s always humbling to see so many families from our community are in need,” she said.
Faculty adviser Justin Goff said organizations often contact him asking that he send student volunteers their way. While they are out in the community, the students gain a greater understanding of the world around them, he said.
“They start to see that our needs are not always as severe as the needs of others,” Goff said.
Above and beyond
It was Emily Nyman’s love of history that led her to volunteer at the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park in Fishers two years ago.
Students working for the park are required to complete 120 hours of service to remain part of the volunteer program. But Nyman wasn’t about to stop when she hit her max.
Since starting, the Fortville teen has logged 1,269 hours of community service; 750 of those hours were completed in one year. She recently received an award from the park for going above and beyond the program’s expectations.
Volunteers are more important to the Conner Prairie experience than guests realize, Sarah Morin, the park’s youth experience manager, said, because young visitors to Conner Prairie often learn more from people their own age.
“When kids are talking with other kids, they have a better chance of making an impression,” Morin said.
Nyman, 17, agreed, adding that helping out around the park’s barns and at events has taught her responsibility and how best to interact with others.
A rewarding experience
Annalee Witte, 18, often can be found at the Hope House Homeless Shelter in Greenfield, working the cash register at the shelter’s thrift store. She, too, said it was hard to see so many residents from the community in need, especially when families come in with their children.
Working at the homeless shelter has made her more sensitive to social issues, she said.
“It makes you happy because they are getting the help they need, but it’s hard to see,” Witte said.
Witte, like Janes, is part of Eastern Hancock’s service learning class, which has become a popular program since its inception. English teacher Heather Toney started the class based on one she took as a high school student in Ohio.
Students who choose to sign up for the English class read books about different social issues and then experience those issues first hand while doing volunteer work.
“Kids are like sponges: They soak up everything,” Toney said. “We want these high-schoolers to understand these issues so that, maybe, they can change them in the future.”