The idea was born when some students said they weren't sure how to volunteer.
By JoANNE VIVIANO
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
POLAND -- A 15-year-old prostitute. A dying woman. A child whose eyes light up at the sight of a coiling snake.
All three have been helped by Dr. Sylvia Imler.
And all three were used as examples to show Poland Seminary High School students that they, too, can reach out to someone in need.
Imler, founding principal of the New Hope Academy in Youngstown, visited the high school Tuesday during the "You Can Make a Difference" Thanksgiving assembly.
This year, staff and students teamed with community leaders to trade in the traditional speeches of the annual assembly for a program to encourage volunteer work.
"Sept. 11 made us all realize that we need to step out of our boxes and help others, regardless of who they are, where they live or what color their skin is," Imler told the students.
Animals: Imler, who operates a "living science lab" of 50 different animals at the academy, brought along a guest. With the help of students, "Boots" the snake was lifted from where he napped, snug in a laundry bag inside a wide round basket. She said she volunteers to work with animals like Boots because of the nonfinancial payoff.
"When my students come into that living science lab ... and I see their faces and I see the excitement, that is the reward," Imler said.
Imler also told students about other ways she has helped her community. Hospice patient Cornelia had never seen the flower garden at Mill Creek Park; Imler took her there. Michelle, a 15-year-old prostitute, was given a second chance when Imler invited the girl into her home; Michelle ran from a customer who tried to kill her into Imler's comforting care and had since turned her life around.
Son's death: Also speaking at the event was Kathy Swoboda, whose 11-year-old son Joey, a fourth-grader at Poland North Elementary School, died in March of a rare disease in which his body did not produce enough energy to allow him to function.
Swoboda told of the agencies and friends who helped her family during her son's six-year illness: Angel Flights pilots, who flew the family for free to a treatment center in Florida; the Make-A-Wish Foundation; schoolchildren who raised funds to pay for costly medications; a 19-year-old college student who opened his New York City apartment to the family when they visited a medical facility there.
"You might say it didn't make a difference, but it did," Swoboda said. "It taught a community to bond together; it taught us to be close. ... It taught us to overlook our differences. That was all done by one hand holding another hand."
Organizers of the event were Judy Voleson, a high school guidance counselor, and the Rev. Rusty Wills, pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Poland.
The Rev. Mr. Wills said the idea was born when some students expressed that they didn't know how to volunteer. To help create connections, several community organizations were invited into lunch hours so students could sign up to volunteer. Mr. Wills said students were generous. More than 200 signed up to help out at the Blackburn Home for Aged People, he said. Bill Farragher, president of Habitat for Humanity of Mahoning County, said more than 70 students signed up to work with his group.
Students' speeches: Several students also spoke at the assembly on how they already volunteer in their community.
Students told of work at nursing homes; for Angels for Animals, Special Olympics and the Ronald McDonald House; and of building homes for the needy and doing overseas missionary work.
"We're just not a bunch of slackers. We really do care about other people," said junior Branden Buxman, who helped with a "Handicapped Jamboree" as part of his volunteer work with the U.S. Air Force Civil Air Patrol. "I hope kids do take this to heart."
The program closed with "The Poor Man," a song about the interaction of a rich man and a poor man, written and performed by junior Todd Kaden.
"Well, I know it gets hard sometimes, but couldn't we just try to give a little here and there on the outside?" Kaden sang. "And I also know that life's so hard, but is it such a crime to give someone just a piece of your time?"