816 North

Five teens strive to make life in the Northland better

Updated: 2013-11-13T16:30:06Z

By LISA WADE McCORMICK

Special to The Star

Five Northland teenagers are on missions to change the community, one good deed at a time.

These compassionate middle and high school students are involved in projects to combat hunger; provide clothing for the less fortunate; comfort frightened animals; and help doctors, nurses and other hospital workers.

Who are these kindhearted kids, who defy the widespread stereotype that teenagers today care more about themselves than others? They’re athletes. They’re honor students. One is a budding auctioneer. Another is an aspiring cardiologist.

But they’re also ordinary teens who like to hang out with their friends and post comments on Twitter.

One trait, however, sets these kids apart from their peers. They all have an unwavering passion to make a difference in the lives of those around them.

Caring for the sick

Taylor Tran has become a familiar and welcoming face to doctors, staff members and patients at North Kansas City Hospital. The Smithville High School senior is one of the hospital’s most active volunteers.

The soft-spoken honor student logged 110 volunteer hours in the past year. She clocked most of them last summer when she devoted three days a week to the volunteer work.

Why did the 17-year-old want to spend that much time in a hospital? Tran is an aspiring cardiologist. She also likes to help people, especially those who are sick. Volunteering at a hospital seemed like the perfect way to combine her passions.

“I kept wondering what I could to do to help people without a medical degree and get experience in a hospital setting,” she said. “I started to volunteer and discovered that I loved it.”

Tran has volunteered in departments throughout the hospital. She has assisted nurses in the emergency room, helped staff members in the gastrointestinal lab file paperwork, worked with instructors in the aerobic center and even watched procedures in the cardiac catheter lab. Those experiences solidified her decision to go to medical school.

“I’ve wanted to be a cardiologist since I was 7,” she said, adding that her grandmother’s battle with heart disease fueled her dream. “I’ve told my grandmother not to have a heart attack until I’m a doctor.”

Tran recently applied to the six-year medical degree program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She finds out in April whether she’s accepted.

Those who’ve met Tran are confident she’ll achieve her dream.

“I have no doubt that Taylor will make an excellent doctor,” said Karen Fournier, North Kansas City Hospital’s youth development specialist. “She’s an outstanding volunteer and is extremely reliable. She’s one of those kids who just stand out.”

The amount of time Tran offers the hospital is proof of her dedication to help others.

“Most of our kids volunteer about 30 hours in three months. And many leave us after that time,” Fournier said. “Very few work three days a week in the summer. Taylor has really put in a lot of hours.”

And Tran plans to put in even more.

“It’s so rewarding to work as a volunteer in this hospital,” she said. “When you walk out of the building, you feel so much better, because you know you’ve made a difference in someone’s life.”

Feeding the hungry

Seventeen-year-old Caroline Abbott launched a personal campaign this year to fight teen hunger in her Northland community. The senior at Liberty High School — shocked to learn that some of her peers went hungry on weekends — started a snack-pack program in September to tackle this growing problem.

“It’s hard to imagine that people my own age don’t have something as basic as food,” she said.

Abbott and members of her school’s Key Club meet every two weeks to stuff and deliver shopping bags filled with peanut butter, granola bars, ramen noodles and other food for freshmen at Liberty Academy.

“We’ve made sure the 10 neediest kids get these snack packs,” said Liberty Academy paraprofessional Joe Gonino, adding that privacy rules prevent Abbott from meeting the students she serves.

Abbott reached out to teenagers at the Liberty School District’s alternative high school because it has the most students on the free and reduced-price lunch program.

The civic-minded teen made her first delivery Sept. 12 and will continue to drop off food throughout the school year.

“I requested freshmen or sophomores, because they have the hardest time getting a job to help their families,” Abbott said of the project, which mirrors Harvesters’ BackSnack program.

Harvesters’ program, however, only provides food to low-income elementary and middle school students. It doesn’t help high school students.

Abbott wanted to fill that hunger gap. She started the snack-pack program for high school students as a community service project for Key Club, a leadership organization sponsored by Kiwanis International.

“This was such a perfect idea,” said Abbott, who also used the project to earn her Girl Scout Gold Award. “Give food to people who don’t have any on the weekends, especially people who are my peers.”

Students in Key Club have donated most of the food for the snack packs. The Lady Jays volleyball team pitched in, too.

Abbott’s project is still in the early stages, but Gonino said it had already made a difference in the lives of hungry students.

“We see the appreciation in their eyes,” he said.

Gonino has seen the students’ attendance increase, too.

What will happen to the program after Abbott graduates? She vows it will continue. And she’s optimistic it will someday reach students in other schools.

“I’m excited about this program’s potential,” said Abbott. “I hope this idea will motivate other students (in other districts) to start similar programs.”

Serving the elderly

A smile crosses Bradley Chapin’s face when he talks about the senior citizens he has met as a Meals on Wheels volunteer. Over the past three years the Northland teen has delivered hundreds of warm dinners — and his friendly smile — to elderly residents in Gladstone.

“And I’ve met the most caring people,” he said.

Some of his favorite seniors on his delivery route are a 94-year-old retired home builder, and a retired banker and his wife.

“I like being around senior citizens,” said Bradley, an eighth-grader at Pembroke Hill. “Being around them makes them happy, and that makes me happy.”

There’s another reason Bradley likes to volunteer for Meals on Wheels. The 14-year-old gets to spend time with his grandfather, Ernest Smith. The two have worked side by side on this anti-hunger campaign since Bradley was 11 years old.

“One of my main motivations to do this was so we could be together,” Smith said.

But the pair is just as committed to helping Northland seniors who face hunger and loneliness on a daily basis.

“Sometimes we’re the only people they see all day,” Smith said.

Bradley volunteers with his grandfather once a week during the summer and on holidays. They pick up the meals at North Kansas City Hospital and deliver them to the seven to 11 seniors on their route.

“We usually work on fried-chicken day,” Bradley said, adding that meal is popular with the elderly.

This aspiring architect — and youngest Meals on Wheels volunteer in the area — works with other charitable organizations, too. Bradley is a budding auctioneer and has lent his vocal talents to such charities as Touch-a-Truck and the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

“I think it’s important for people to volunteer,” said Bradley, an honor student and football player at Pembroke Hill. “You feel like you’ve achieved something, like you’ve done something good.”

Clothing the needy

Abbie Mason is making dreams come true for students at North Kansas City High School who can’t afford dresses for homecoming, jeans or coats.

The 17-year-old scholar athlete in August opened a new and completely renovated room called the Hornet’s Closet to make sure all her classmates have the clothes they need.

Money is never an issue. Everything in the jam-packed Hornet’s Closet is free, and students are welcome to take as many items as they want.

No questions asked. No judgments made.

“I like the idea of providing something to my peers that they really need,” said Mason, a senior. “I want them to feel comfortable coming down here. I want them to know everything here is for them.”

Teachers and staff members have donated clothes to the school’s needy students for years. But they didn’t have an organized game plan. They kept dresses in one building, and jeans and T-shirts in another.

Mason consolidated the clothing into one neatly arranged and welcoming space.

“I wanted to simplify things,” she says.

Over the summer, the varsity softball player and homecoming queen candidate cleaned out the storage closet that now houses her benevolent boutique. She put carpets on the cement floor. She hung a mirror on the wall. Her dad built shelves and added racks with hanging rods.

The impeccably organized Hornet’s Closet — a tiny room on the lower level of the school’s main building — is now filled with ties, jeans, T-shirts, dresses, formal gowns, coats, hats, gloves, shoes and suits.

“Is all the stuff in here really free?” one student asked.

Mason smiled and nodded. “Take as much as you need,” she said.

The Hornet’s Closet is open two or three days a week. And there’s usually a steady stream of shoppers inside.

“I think this place is really cool,” another teenager said as she looked for dresses.

Mason hopes the Hornet’s Closet will stay open after she graduates.

“Students in National Honor Society could easily take this over as a project,” said Mason, who might submit the free clothing campaign to earn her Girl Scout Gold Award.

The aspiring teacher, however, started the project for more altruistic reasons.

“Some students I go to school with have to worry about food, clothing and shelter,” Mason says. “If I could take just one of those worries away for them … it would be amazing.”

Lending a hand where it’s needed

Madison Fitzgerald seems destined to etch her name in volunteer history. The Parkville teenager has rolled up her sleeves to help more than 30 charities over the past five years. She has devoted 676 hours of service to such organizations as Harvesters, Synergy House and Heart to Heart International.

“Working as a volunteer is an important part of life,” said Fitzgerald, a senior at St. Teresa’s Academy. “I think it’s my job as a person to give back to my community.”

The 17-year-old honor student and accomplished singer took the first steps in her humanitarian journey in the sixth grade. She joined forces with an organization that has a name almost as long as her record of community service — the Youth Volunteer Corps of Greater Kansas City, hosted by the YMCA.

“The great thing about volunteering with YVC is that I can work on a variety of projects,” she said.

Fitzgerald has helped homeless people, collected toys for needy children, and comforted frightened and abused animals at a local shelter.

The aspiring college professor has become one of YVC’s most dedicated — and decorated — volunteers. Fitzgerald received the Presidential Volunteer Service Award this year for her work with the organization. The honor recognizes volunteers across the country who inspire others to serve.

“We’ve been fortunate to have Madison as a volunteer at YVC,” said Paul Marksbury, the organization’s affiliate services coordinator. “There is definitely something special about her.”

Fitzgerald, however, downplays those accolades. She’d rather talk about the people she has helped, the lives she has touched and the memories she has made as a volunteer. Those experiences, she says, changed her outlook on life.

“Working as a volunteer has made me appreciate what I have in my life,” said Fitzgerald, who plans to attend Yale or Vanderbilt and study biology. “It’s made me feel better about myself, because I’m doing something worthwhile.”

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