The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

October 13, 2013

Students sparkle

Silver Cord program replaces forced volunteerism

By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer

HERMITAGE — For years, Hickory High School required that students perform community service in order to graduate.

Philosophically, it was a requirement that administrators were not sure was a good idea.

“We always struggled with the concept of mandatory volunteerism,” Superintendent Dr. Daniel Bell recently told the Hermitage Community and Economic Development Commission.

One unintended consequence was that some students soured on  volunteerism, he said.

When administrators decided to drop the requirement, they looked for a way to continue promoting community service. They created a new program called Silver Cord in which students earn the right to wear silver cords with their graduation gowns by performing at least 150 hours of community service during their high school years.

Because the program is new, this year’s class members only have to perform 50 hours, with the required number of hours building each year until it reaches 150 hours for the class of 2017 and beyond.

“I think it’s a good program,” said junior Madison Bell. “I definitely believe it’s getting a lot more people involved than otherwise would have.”

Junior Cassidy Griffith agreed, calling the program well-organized.

“It gives a lot of opportunities for everyone to give back and help,” Cassidy said.

For Madison, a key element to the program is that school officials approve agencies that students can earn credit with. That list is provided to students, giving them contact names and telephone numbers. So far, there are 59 approved agencies.

“I always wanted to do it,” Madison said of volunteering. “Sometimes, it’s not so easy to contact people about it.”

“As a student, you don’t know how to get involved,” Cassidy said.

Students also are allowed to initiate new programs. Madison received permission to create an Alex’s Lemonade Stand at the August WaterFire Sharon. She rounded up staffing for the activity – including other high school students looking for Silver Cord credit – and solicited donations from businesses for supplies.

“We made about $1,500 for pediatric cancer research,” Madison said, noting that her goal was $500.

“It was a fun experience to get out and meet people in the community,” she said. “Some people came up and gave $20 for a glass of lemonade just because they knew they were giving to a good cause.”

Silver Cord promotes a wide range of activities because students generally can earn only up to 10 hours with any particular agency.

Principal Chris Gill said officials did not want students to be able to earn all of their credit with one agency or activity.

“This way, they can expand, go beyond their comfort zone,” said guidance counselor Jeannette Whitehead.

Exemptions from the 10-hour limit can be earned under certain circumstances. Madison was credited with 20 hours because she organized Alex’s Lemonade Stand.

She said she worked 10 hours at UPMC Horizon, Farrell, over the summer and plans to collect for the March of Dimes in the spring.

Cassidy worked 10 hours with the Children’s Center of Mercer County, working with children ages toddlers to sixth-grade, and put in 30 hours with MCAR Inc.’s Fun in the Sun Summer Camp. The choices she made were mindful of her career interests.

“When I’m older, I want to be a child therapist,” Cassidy said. “Working with the young kids have me an opportunity to interact with the younger age group.”

But, the activities were more than job preparation, she said.

“I loved every second of volunteering,” Cassidy said, adding that it also gave her an opportunity to spend time with her friends in a way that was beneficial to others.

In the future, she wants to spend more time working with MCAR and helping out the Shenango Valley Animal Shelter.

Officials are happy with the student participation thus far. Guidance counselor Roshelle Green said about 200 students are signed up out of about 650 total students in grades nine through 12.

“The kids are exceeding expectations,” said social studies teacher Nicole Porter

Bell said he believes Silver Cord will generate positive peer pressure, and falls in line with the voluntary drug testing program officials are working on instituting.

“Kids sign up because they make an active decision,” he said.

Assistant City Manager Gary M. Gulla said student volunteers were “invaluable” at the Hermitage Arts Festival and Rockin’ at LindenPointe, a daylong musical festival instituted this summer by Sharon Regional Health System.

Rex W. Knisley, chairman of the Hermitage Community and Economic Development Commission, a volunteer advisory board and volunteer board member of other agencies, said he has seen a general decline in volunteerism locally.

“I think it’s a good idea to see what these agencies do and how easy it is to volunteer back to the community,” Knisley said. “I applaud the program.”

The experience also should help students seeking work or applying to colleges and trade schools, he said.

Gill added that he hopes linking students to the community will help keep them stay here after they graduate from high school or return here after college.