Saturday, April 22, 2006

National Youth Service Day in Etna

Rain didn't dampen the spirits of volunteers and kids at 4-H acres today. Led by Cornell student and former Etna resident, Jessica Houle, dozens of volunteers and kids built a willow hut. They began by digging this circular trench. Then raised willow branches which will be woven together. In a few weeks, the willow will take root in the trench and continue to grow to form a shelter.

Kids taking a break from the rain are inside making "All About Me" books. I tried it. The template included birthdate, favorite food, favorite color and best subject in school. But it got harder with open ended questions like "I hope...." and "In ten years I'll be...."

This isn't just a one day activity. In 2005 when Jessica Houle started thinking about community service opportunities, she focused on Conger's Mobil Home Park where she grew up. On National Youth Service Day last year, fifty people celebrated the beginning of OURS (Opportunity, Understanding, Respect, Success), a program that "brings free opportunities to youth in Conger's Mobil Home Park." Last fall Cornell students formed YOURS (Youth Outreach: Undergraduates Reshaping Success) Now kids from the park and their Cornell student mentors meet every Friday to work on personal goals. Jon Song leads Hip Hop dance sessions and earlier in April Dave Hall taught wilderness survival skills. Last week Jessica received the Cornell Public Service Robinson-Appel Humanitarian Award. Its $1,500 cash prize will fund a program to teach kids to budget and manage money.

Houle is inspired by the growth she observes in individual kids and she's laying a solid foundation for the organization continue when she plans to spend a semester abroad next spring. Though a lot of her adult help now comes from Cornell students, Jessica's making every effort to make this a Dryden community project. It would be easier if they had a meeting place closer to where the kids live in Etna. Or if they had reliable transportation to 4-H acres where they meet now. But Jessica and her friends aren't look for easy. They're focused on kids and what they need.

Jessica and Sarah, Rachel, Mary, Meredith, Taylor, Madison and all the kids, big and small, that I met today: I couldn't possibly be prouder of you.


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