Suzanne Tobias

April 9, 2014

Service project brings high-schoolers, preschoolers together

Robin Eshelman’s e-mail appeared in my inbox last week like a bouquet of dandelion blossoms delivered by a toddler – an adorable and heartwarming gift salvaged from the mess of weeds.

Robin Eshelman’s e-mail appeared in my inbox last week like a bouquet of dandelion blossoms delivered by a toddler – an adorable and heartwarming gift salvaged from the mess of weeds.

“I wanted to share this story with you because I think everyone needs to hear it,” she wrote.

Eshelman, director of East Heights Preschool in Wichita, said about two dozen high school students spent time at her preschool last Wednesday morning. Their visit was part of Aces in the Community, an annual event in which East High students partner with nonprofit agencies, schools and other organizations for a half-day service project.

“I have to say, when I told my preschool staff they were coming, they had their doubts,” Eshelman said.

I can imagine, I told her.

Teenagers? they probably groaned. A whole horde of them? Won’t they be obnoxious and unruly, glued to their cellphones, rolling their eyes, tweeting and SnapChatting all day long, more trouble than they’re worth? Because, I mean, they’re teenagers. (Grumble. Sigh.)

That’s not how the day ended up going.

“When they first came in, I talked with the high school students about how to work with kids this age, how to get down on their level,” Eshelman said. “We went over some logistics and made sure we had enough supervision. Basic stuff.”

Then she sent the East students into the preschool classrooms and watched the magic.

The preschoolers and high-schoolers played games together. They read books. They built block towers. They made “rainbow toast” for a snack. Big kids let the little kids do their hair. They gave piggyback rides. They went outside and played on the swings, big kids pushing little kids and then vice versa, all of them smiling and singing and laughing.

“Not once did we see a cellphone,” Eshelman said. “These students communicated nothing but respect and caring to our students. They didn’t seem to mind if they looked silly doing it or if their friends were watching.

“It was incredible to see the bonding that took place.”

The East High kids went back to school around lunchtime that day, but the experience stuck with the preschoolers, their parents and the East Heights staff, the director said.

“Everyone wants to know when they can come again,” she said. “We’d have them back anytime.”

Aces in the Community, in its sixth year, is just one of numerous community service projects involving local high school students. Each year before Thanksgiving, Wichita students collect thousands of dollars, turkeys and canned goods as part of the United Methodist Open Door turkey drive. And countless teenagers and younger children volunteer regularly with service clubs, churches and as part of classroom service projects.

“The kids love getting out and helping other people,” said Patty Stuever, student leadership coordinator for the Wichita district. “We hope that by doing so, maybe they can find something they’re really passionate about that they can do throughout their lives.”

Sara Richardson, an East High assistant principal who dreamed up the Aces in the Community event, said the response has been “overwhelmingly positive” from both students and the groups they help. About 2,300 students and 200 staff members participated this year, cleaning up parks, visiting the elderly, helping in elementary schools and more.

“So often teenagers get a bad rap, and this is a great opportunity to spotlight East High and the kids and what they can do to give back,” she said.

Eshelman, the preschool director, said youngsters at her school have been “talking about their buddies non-stop” and gleefully looking through photos that teachers took that morning.

“I made sure the teachers knew what a positive impact those students had on our little community,” she said. “We want to be on their list for next year.”

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