Students tackle community service in different ways

If they want to move on, they must learn to give.

It is a policy in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, and there's no way around it. Students must complete at least 40 hours of community service during their four years of high school to graduate.

How students decide to spend their time varies, and results in ideas that are sometimes routine, sometimes inspired.

Newport Harbor High School sophomore Natalie Cernius' idea had its genesis close to home. She started a Friday Night Club at her school in an effort to give her older brother, who is autistic, more opportunities to meet people and have fun.

She said participants are special-needs teens, including those with Down syndrome, autism and physical disabilities.

Natalie collaborated with the United Cerebral Palsy of Orange County and Talk About Autism, which provide a clubhouse for the club to meet once a month. The group also meets at Natalie's house monthly.

"It was originally for him, but there are so many kids," said Natalie, 15.

There are also many volunteers. She said there used to be eight to 12, and now 10 to 15 come to help out from various schools.

"It's incredible," Natalie said. "I never felt so good about something."

Her 17-year-old brother seems to be enjoying it, too. She said he glows during the events and is making friends.

"He and a little girl and another kid from school are now best friends," Natalie said.

Ann Brown, the support secretary in charge of the community service program at Newport Harbor High, said many students have gone beyond the basic community service program, but added that many wait until the last minute to meet their requirements.

That's when the staff is able to help.

"Teachers always need help after school," she said. "As long as it's after school hours."

She said there are about 3,000 nonprofits in Orange County alone. She helps students find them by providing lists to teachers to post in every class.

"I try to work with students to find their interest," Brown said. "If they like animals, maybe direct them to Community Animal Network. Or they can plan a manicure day once a month at a senior center.

"We've never had a student not fulfill the requirement," she added.

Not all students are ready to make such a time- and energy-consuming commitment as Natalie has to fulfill their 40 hours.

Costa Mesa High School junior Dakota Alford said for him the community service was just one more requirement to graduate. He read to children at the library and helped out. But the 16-year-old didn't feel especially sentimental about the experience.

"It was just something I had to get done," he said.

Dakota is one of the many students who fulfill their requirement at a library.

Erik Oviedo, the children's librarian at the Donald Dungan branch on Park Avenue, said students help out a lot and seem to enjoy some of their duties, like creating crafts for storytime or setting up the scene for the summer reading program.

But, he added, most show up just to complete their hours.

"Not too many come because they want to," he said. "If they weren't here, they'd be at home watching TV or on the computer."

Regardless of the reason for being there, he said the students always seem to enjoy themselves.

"The kids are always enthusiastic and have a lot of fun," Oviedo said.

Library branch manager Susan Sassone said students are assigned duties based on their level of experience.

Sometimes they clean books or toys that are part of the children's storytime, and sometimes they pull books that have been requested from one of the other Orange County libraries.

"We like to show the teens how to find the books on the shelf," Sassone said.

Another place many students tend to volunteer is their church, according to Estancia's Assistant Principal Jennifer Chamberlin.

She said many offer to lead a youth group or babysit during a church event. She said they also participate in philanthropic programs.

Students also offer to help at area elementary schools with homework or activities after school.

Chamberlin said each student's hours are posted, and they can always check it.

"They can't claim ignorance," she said, adding that she sends emails out every time she hears of another service opportunity.

But, she said, "Kids like to wait till the last minute."

As an extra incentive, Estancia High School makes it a requirement for seniors to have 30 hours completed in order to go to the homecoming dance.

"Right before ticket sales get close, I'll get a flood of hours," Chamberlin said.

She said she knows for some it's just another box to check, but she hopes they are learning the importance of service to others.

"I hope they learn some altruism," Chamberlin said. "I'd like them to take it with them in life."

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