A boy stands along the wall watching a trio of high school girls dance to hip-hop music. One of the girls, dressed in a leopard print cave woman outfit, notices that he’s not dancing and walks over to him.
“Are you Ironman?” asks Sally Sweeney, a senior at Shawnee Mission East High School.
Ironman nods, his plastic mask moving stiffly up and down.
“I’m Sally,” says Sweeney. “Want to dance?”
On a Wednesday night earlier this month, 15 volunteers from the SHARE program at Shawnee Mission East High School are at the Down Syndrome Guild of Greater Kansas City’s Halloween Dance. They’ve helped to set up the party and they’ll put away the decorations at the end of the evening. But right now, as red and green lights strobe across Halloween streamers and a DJ blasts Top 40 hits, the volunteers are trying to coax partygoers out onto the dance floor.
SHARE has been working with the Down Syndrome Guild, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary next May, for the past two years — ever since senior Corinne Stratton approached the nonprofit in Mission about volunteering.
“My sister has special needs and I’m interested in nonprofit management, working with the special needs community,” says Stratton, who is wearing a Santa hat for the dance. “So I just called and asked if they needed help.”
Since that call, SHARE volunteers have danced, provided child care and staffed a Santa beard table at the organization’s annual Christmas party. Tonight, at the Halloween party, they make up a third of the volunteers ensuring the 70 attendees are having fun.
“They show up. They’re on time and they’re always ready to go,” says Sarah Wren, the program director for the Down Syndrome Guild.
Spiderman and Dorothy bounce up and down to “Party Rock,” while a soccer player and Elvis are batting balloons in the air like they’re at a concert. The four SHARE leaders for the Down Syndrome Guild — Stratton, Sweeney, her twin sister Abby Sweeney and Emma Pirotte — float around the dance floor, encouraging new volunteers to overcome their own shyness or just singing along with the karaoke-style lyrics on the screen behind the DJ.
On Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons throughout the school year, volunteers from SHARE are donating their time and efforts.
And while many high schools have service-focused organizations — and thousands of teens around Johnson County volunteer their time for good causes — SHARE is different in that the students are the ones establishing and maintaining relationships with community service groups, as well as volunteering. Officials think it’s the largest school-based, student-led youth volunteer nonprofit in the country.
“There are a lot of groups in school led by adults,” says Stratton. “It feels good to actually do things for ourselves.”
SHARE began as a pilot program in 1985 organized by the Shawnee Mission East High School Parent Teacher Association. The East Service Project, as it was called for the first three years, was designed to encourage sophomores to engage in community service. Initially run by volunteers from the PTA, the program was taken over by a pair of faculty volunteers: counselor Deb Atkinson and nurse Bev Timmons.
In 1988, the program was renamed to SHARE (which then stood for Share Helping in Areas Related to Education) and all grade levels at the high school were invited to participate. As the scope and number of volunteer projects increased — SHARE students raised funds, recruited volunteers and built an entire house for Habitat for Humanity in 1995 — the club developed the system that is still in place today.
“Most schools have volunteer projects,” says SHARE director Pat Kaufman. “But here it’s all about the kids.”
A team of student execs, originally four and now seven high school seniors, oversees all of the volunteer projects. Each project, in turn, has between one and four student chairpersons, who recruit fellow volunteers and are the points of contact on volunteer days. In a given project, such as the “birthday boxes” filled with gifts created for inner-city schoolchildren, the seniors in the program then mentor the underclassmen.
“Our birthdays are a great example,” says associate director Leslie Multer. “We have seniors run it. Then we pull in juniors and they can run it the next year.”
The organizational structure of SHARE changed in 2003 because Timmons, who had been responsible for recruiting students, retired. The club morphed into a nonprofit with the Shawnee Mission Education Foundation managing the organization’s finances in order to help them secure tax-exempt status.
The Shawnee Mission School District allowed SHARE to turn a room at the high school into its office and use the school’s equipment. The new SHARE was, and is today, supported entirely by funds from the community. Those funds allowed Kaufman and Multer to transition from volunteers to paid employees. Timmons remained involved with the program after her retirement, writing grants and serving as a paid consultant for the next four years.
“The students see what you value when they walk into the building. And here we really value citizenship,” says principal John McKinney. “Pat and Leslie help show them volunteering is a worthwhile pursuit and they can develop a love of service they carry into adulthood.”
When Kaufman became director, she looked at which projects were popular and came to a simple conclusion for how SHARE could grow.
“The best projects had always been the project initiated by the kids,” says Kaufman. “So we said, if you can come up with a project, we’ll support it. The kids came up with a kazillion projects, and because it was their idea, there was more buy-in.”
SHARE now sponsors between 50 and 80 projects per year. Students have hung origami cranes to save the wetlands, served blood-red snow cones to encourage fellow students to give blood and collected used eyeglasses to send to Togo. Students serve as literacy volunteers, preschool aides and Salvation Army bell ringers. They hold signs during marathons, visit with elderly residents at Village Shalom and Brighton Gardens and sort and stock food for Harvesters and the Village Food Pantry. Students also raise awareness about breast cancer, dog adoptions and bicycle helmet safety.
“The kids are typically focused on teamwork. The lesson they don’t get typically get is project management. Here’s the goal. Let’s step it backwards. That’s part of what we teach them,” says Kaufman.
The program had 86 sophomores participate in its first year. This year, Kaufman estimates that 800 students, approximately half the student body, will volunteer for one of SHARE’s projects.
SHARE “gives students the opportunity to go into other parts of the community,” says McKinney. “There are many areas that need volunteers. We want kids to not just see those needs, but say, ‘How can we do something about it?’”
On a Friday morning in September, the seven members of the SHARE executive committee gather, as they do three times a week, in the program’s fourth-floor office at Shawnee Mission East. In a loose semicircle of chairs and a loveseat, Kaleigh Frigon, Claire Gilman, Spencer Jones, Alex Maday, Erin McGinley, Johnnie Norton and Mitch Tyler face Multer and Kaufman.
Village Presbyertian Church needs volunteers at its pantry. Frigon types the information and date into the calendar on her phone. The execs talk about upcoming projects — Renovation Sensation, the garage sale that is the main fundraiser for the program, and a Green Bean Dodgeball Tournament in November where students bring canned goods as their tournament entry fee. SHARE is also launching School Buddies, a new tutoring program at Comanche Elementary School in Overland Park, and the executives talk about meeting with the school’s principal to get the program started.
When asked why they joined SHARE, the seniors explain that it was a way to find their place at the high school.
“I thought it was a great way to get involved and meet people,” says Jones.
Jones and Maday attended St. Paul’s Episcopal Day School in Kansas City through eighth grade.
“Spencer and I started a pilot project for the Salvation Army,” says Maday. “They never had kids ringing the bells.”
Bells for Bucks will resume this November. Nearly all the projects have catchy names — Soles4Souls is a shoe drive, and Try to Walk in Her Shoes has boys wear high heels in a relay race to raise awareness about abused women.
With Shawnee Mission East, a seat on the SHARE executive committee is seen as a sign of leadership in part because each committee is responsible for picking its successors. In the spring, this group will pick the next body to lead SHARE.
“The people that were execs before me were all respectable people,” says Tyler. “They were all good guys and I wanted to be like them.”
One by one (conversations in the SHARE office are governed by a plastic purple bird that has been dubbed the “talking stick”), the seniors suggest it’s what happens while they’re volunteering that has kept them involved.
“When you go the birthday parties and just to see the looks on their faces when they get those books. That made it all worthwhile,” Jones says.
Near the end of the hour, the students debate whether they should feature dodge balls in the school-wide lip dub (a lip synch and audio dubbing of “Don’t Stop Believing) to promote the green bean food drive.
“Food drives. Coat drives. Toiletries drives,” says Kaufman. “We drive everything but cattle.”
“SOE,” adds senior Erin McGinley, laughing. “SHARE over everything.”
An hour after the Halloween party has started, the dance floor is packed with superheroes and cowboys all riding imaginary horses to the beat of “Gangnam Style.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Emma,” says Pirotte, reaching her hand out to a young woman in a karate outfit. “Actually, tonight I’m Barbie. Want to dance?”
On this night, Pirotte, who has her blonde hair pulled back and is wearing a bright pink sweater, is doing her best impression of Organizer Barbie. She explains how she used a bit of peer pressure to try and convince a fellow sophomore to volunteer his time.
“I threatened to (Facebook) chat his mom,” says Pirotte.
Her three fellow co-chairs, all seniors, are grooming the 15-year-old to take over the project partnership with the Down Syndrome Guild.
“I love it,” says Pirotte. “The idea that I can come back and I might recognize someone and they might recognize me. It makes me feel good.”
The theme to “Ghostbusters” floats out of the speakers and Pirotte hits the dance floor. She flashes a smile over at Stratton, who is raising her hands straight into the air and bouncing. As the bass pumps out of the party room, program director Sarah Wren sits at the desk off the front entrance to the DSG office. She bobs to the music, creasing the top of her full-body hot dog costume. Wren lifts her head up from a computer screen and looks out on the lobby, where a partygoer is lounging on a couch, taking a break from dancing. A SHARE volunteer with mouse ears walks over to the couch and strikes up a conversation.
“It makes me very happy to know that SHARE is run by high school kids,” says Wren. “It gives me faith that the next generation has that sense of service.”