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Volunteering helps teens discover their passions

Instead of getting a paid job at age 16, many teens have turned to volunteering as a way to find inspiration and give back to the community.

Working with children is an accessible way for teens to help out. One possibility is to volunteer as a camp counselor. St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy is a charity mission in Buffalo. Along with its other yearly services, St. Luke’s runs a children’s summer camp called “Kids of the Kingdom” from the St. John Kanty school off Broadway.

This program, a free camp for area children, takes the campers on field trips and provides them with meals.

Benjamin Brownell, a 2013 graduate of St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute and a freshman at Hobart College, volunteered as a counselor for one week in July.

“Well, my sister Maeve actually signed me up without notice,” Benjamin said. “But I decided to stay on because I thought it would be a good experience, helping to make some kid’s summer fun and memorable.”

Each counselor had the task of keeping track of one to two kids each day. Field trips throughout the four-week program ranged from roller skating, to the beach, to the carnival at Old Home Days in Williamsville.

Benjamin said that even though sometimes the younger kids had trouble listening to him, he ultimately found the camp rewarding.

“I was inspired by the fact that even though these kids don’t have much, they can look past all those troubles and just have a good time with their friends,” Benjamin said. “Would I do it again? Most likely, if time allows.”

Elizabeth Kane, a sophomore at Nardin Academy who also volunteered at St. Luke’s, found time later in the summer to volunteer at the Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts. The arts festival also provides an excellent opportunity for volunteers who have limited time, since the festival takes place over one weekend.

The Kidsfest, a small part of the annual festival, is located in the parking lot of the Lexington Co-Op. It has become a family favorite among festivalgoers. While the Kidfest houses many events, such as live dancing and arts and crafts stations, a staple of the festival has always been face painting.

Elizabeth faced the unique challenge of being a face-painter at this year’s festival in August. As a face painter, Elizabeth had to be able to create all of the designs (about 50) in the sample book. However, some designs proved to be more difficult to complete.

“Well, when kids asked for a panda, I couldn’t really make it look like a panda. It looked more like a raccoon,” Elizabeth said. “I was under a lot of pressure when the parents would stand there.”

Although the work was demanding, Elizabeth didn’t let this discourage her.

“This experience, along with St. Luke’s, inspired me to continue volunteering with kids at different, various camps,” she said. “I would volunteer at the fest again, because the face-painting aspect of volunteering wasn’t too hard with a little practice. I was a pretty rocking face painter.”

Some area teens took very careful consideration when they decided where to volunteer.

Ricki Chen, a junior at City Honors, has recently begun volunteering with the Aquarium of Niagara because of her passion for marine life and conservation.

“I’ve loved animals since I was really small, probably about 5 or 6,” Ricki said. “My mom always encouraged me to explore the natural world,” said Ricki.

Her love for marine life “grew as I got older, and I understood more about the animals and how they were actually extremely complex creatures that live lives as important as mine.”

Ricki has now translated this lifelong passion into a career path.

Ricki dreams of someday becoming an exotic species veterinarian, having a specialization in aquatic animals. She is also focused on animal conservation.

Her passion for marine life motivated Ricki to seek a volunteer position at the aquarium, where she now volunteers every Saturday. Ricki can only say positive things about the experience she has had so far.

“This opportunity to be a volunteer at the aquarium is something that I am extremely lucky to have,” she said. “I’ve only just begun and I’m no way an expert on it, but so far I’ve had an amazing experience and met some wonderful people who are all very compassionate and hard-working. This opportunity is definitely helping me build a foundation in this career field.”

Ricki also plans to take an advanced biology class at City Honors to help enhance her understanding of animals.

An organization very special to the hearts of many Western New Yorkers is Camp Good Days and Special Times, which provides a free camp for children affected by cancer. It is located at Keuka Lake in the Finger Lakes. Activities provided at the camp include woodworking, music, drama and arts and crafts.

Valerie Mueller, a junior at Mount St. Mary Academy, has been a camper at Camp Good Days for seven years, and has a remarkable story that has inspired her to become a volunteer at the camp next year.

When Valerie was very young, she had a Wilms tumor, which is a type of kidney cancer. She had to have one kidney removed, and has now been free of cancer for 15 years.

Volunteers at Camp Good Days must be 17 and older, so next year is the first year that Valerie will be a volunteer instead of a camper. She is excited about this new challenge.

“Volunteering at Camp Good Days means a lot to me because I don’t pay anything to go every year,” she said. “I’m most excited about meeting new people and hearing their incredible stories about surviving cancer.”

As a cancer survivor herself, Valerie finds it easy to relate to the other campers.

“We all understand what each other has been through,” she said.

Most importantly, Valerie draws inspiration from those who surround her during the camp.

It “shows me how many other cancer survivors there are, and it allows us to try new things and not be underestimated because of our past.”

Tracy Werick is a junior at City Honors.