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PROFILE: Symmes Valley students learn by helping others

AID TOWNSHIP — One doll is meant for a little girl and has long strands of caramel-colored yarn hair; another doll that will be given to a little boy has candy-apple red curls and zippy striped pants.

Both are destined for a child at Cabell-Huntington Hospital in Huntington, W.Va., compliments of some caring and quite enterprising young ladies at Symmes Valley High School.

“We encourage our organizations here in the school to come up with ideas for community service,” Symmes Valley High School Principal Jeff Saunders said.

The dolls are one of several — make that numerous— community service projects the Symmes Valley district undertakes every year. Symmes Valley may be few in numbers, but as evidenced by the pride taken in community service, it is rich in spirit.

Angels among us

In December, 85 Symmes Valley Elementary School students had a merrier Christmas, thanks to the students at the high school.

Beta Club Adviser Ken Shipley said in previous years, the Symmes Valley Beta Club participated in the Angel Tree program organized by the Lawrence County Department of Job And Family Services.

But this year when JFS officials announced that staffing cuts would not allow their program to continue, Symmes Valley’s Beta Club picked up the ball. And ran with it.

The Beta Club organized a district-wide Angel Tree program to benefit students at the elementary school whom teachers recommended for the Christmas assistance.

Shipley said the initial goal had been 60 students but in the end the generosity outweighed the need.

Shortly before Christmas break, gifts for each child were placed in large, clean trash bags and readied for pick up.

The bags were then stacked against one wall in a room just off the library; the assemblage was 2-3 garbage bags high and probably 12 feet long. Several bikes were parked along another wall.

“It means a lot to help people in our community,” Beta Club Angel Tree co-organizer Nikki Nance said. “Before, we were helping people we didn’t know. Now we’re helping students within our district so it’s a lot more meaningful.”

The Beta Club members also visit nursing homes each spring and conduct an Easter concert.

Future farmers, current givers

Their organization is known as the Future Farmers of America. But the FFA students at Symmes Valley have apparently already learned that seeds of kindness sown now can have lasting benefits.

The FFA students go caroling at Sunset Nursing Home at Christmastime and pass out cookies to the residents there.

Surplus fruit from FFA fruit sales each year is donated to a local church.

The FFA students also assist participants in the annual Wheelin’ Sportsmen fishing day at Lake Vesuvius, sponsored by the local chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. Why?

“Most of us like fishing,” FFA member Samantha Thomas mused.

“I think at first when we went to do this some of them were hesitant at first but once they realized the patients were not going to harm them they began to enjoy it,” FFA Advisor Beth Roberts said. “And some of them are funny and appreciate the help.”

One community service no doubt near and dear to FFA hearts’ has to do with the Lawrence County Junior Fair: they tidy up the fairgrounds each year before the fair begins. What compels these students to spend a week painting and cleaning the stockyard, grandstand and midway?

“I think it’s because we’re actually part of the fair and this is something that’s important to us,” Shawna Myers said.

“And I think it makes us appreciate it more too,” Thomas said.

After Hurricane Katrina, FFA members sent several boxes of school supplies to kids in Louisiana.

They have also adopted American soldiers stationed in Iraq, an undertaking Myers is particularly proud of: her uncle, Brandon Myers is in the army and stationed there.

“I think the reason we do a lot of the things we do is to help them learn responsibility,” Roberts said. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, the way I look at it. Some are not as fortunate as others. And the kids do work hard to raise this money.”

Changing lives

Perhaps one of the largest community service events each year is the annual Relay for Life to benefit the American Cancer Society.

The entire district, both elementary and high schools, are involved and various clubs and organizations form teams to raise money, conduct bake sales and other fundraisers and cheer each other on during the day-long event.

“I think probably every kid in the school and probably everyone in the world knows someone who has had cancer,” Thomas said. “It’s a great cause and it’s a lot of fun.”

The 2009 Relay for Life raised more than $22,000 for cancer research.

Along the same lines, the elementary school students take part each year in a Math-a-thon to benefit the St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and juvenile cancer research.

The Giving Doll

Hospitals can be unpleasant places for children: time spent away from home in the care of strangers — care that is sometimes painful and/or frightening. The Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) at Symmes Valley aim to make that hospital stay a little less intimidating, or at least provide a buddy for comfort.

The FCCLA members are making small cloth dolls for children at Cabell Huntington Hospital.

Each toy, called “The Giving Doll,” comes with a handmade blanket and a tote bag. Each doll is named and comes with a tag from its maker explaining what it is.

“I thought it was going to be very hard. I had never made a doll before,” Kayla Brumbaugh said. “Once we started it, it wasn’t hard and it turned out to be fun.”

The dolls were delivered during Christmas break.

Like other clubs at the high school, the FCCLA also visits nursing homes. At Christmas time, the ladies decorate the doors to patient rooms at Heartland of Riverview in South Point.

“It’s quite a lot of fun,” Brumbaugh said. “Some of the people wanted us to sing Christmas carols and we did. It made us feel good to see them smiling and enjoying themselves.”

Seeing a need

High school students often get a bum rap: The image in the popular media can often inaccurately portray teenagers as self-absorbed. But each year the students at Symmes Valley High School conduct a canned food drive and then assemble to deliver food baskets to needy families in the district. The student council also organizes a Clothe-A-Kid project.

Needy grade school children are taken shopping and then are sent home with $200 in new clothes.

Clothe-A-Kid is a years-long tradition at Symmes Valley.

“You look at the kids and you see how happy they are,” Student Council President Karissa Taylor said. “And it is great just to see the smiles on their faces. It’s amazing how much they appreciate things even if it’s just clothes.”

The student council also hosts a blood drive each spring.