BY GRETCHEN MURRAY Special to the Record-Eagle
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — TRAVERSE CITY -- Rotarians around the globe believe making the world a better place begins with a commitment to local communities. Members of the Benzie Sunrise Rotary Club honor that commitment by dedicating themselves to making a difference in the lives of Benzie County youth.
The business men and women of the Sunrise Rotary are working with the Benzie County Central School District to bring educational programs and extracurricular activities to students to encourage them to stay in school and continue on to higher education.
“We know that Benzie County is one of the most economically challenged counties in Michigan, but we didn’t want that fact to deter our kids from thinking higher education is beyond their reach,” said Kris Thomas, the Sunrise Rotary Club president. “We decided to try to build a partnership with the schools, and we were welcomed with open arms.”
Thomas said club volunteers began in 2011 to hold Career Days for middle school seventh graders. They also offered Choices workshops for eighth graders that emphasize how making good educational choices in middle school can affect their futures. Thomas said other volunteers help middle school students run their school store, and in April they took the eighth grade class, about 130 students, to Michigan State University.
“We wanted them to be able to actually visualize themselves in a major university campus setting,” Thomas said.
The trip took some Benzie students a step closer to what might have been only a dream.
Between 60 and 65 percent of the district’s children are on a free or reduced lunch program, an indicator of the economic conditions in Benzie County, said Benzie Central High School Principal Peter Olson. Benzie Middle School Principal David Clasen said opportunities like the MSU trip have been lost, given the region's financial harships over the past several years.
“The Sunrise Rotary is able to provide the resources for our students that we are no longer able to provide,” Clasen said.
Clasen sees positive input from outside sources like Rotary as a win-win situation for the community.
“We believe if we can connect our local community service organizations early on, we can begin to instill a sense of community pride among our students as they progress in their education. As a result, they will be more inclined to give back and join those organizations, even if they don't live in our area,” Clasen said. “This is about developing caring individuals that will, in turn, learn that giving back is more rewarding than receiving.”
The Sunrise Rotary expanded programming into the high school where their Students Taking Renewed Interest in the Value of Education program focuses on the bottom one-third of the senior class by offering mentoring and encouragement to those students to obtain their high school diploma.
In January they began sponsoring an Interact Club, a Rotary International service club for youth ages 14 to 18.
“This is something the school wanted to do and it’s nice to have outside group help,” Olson said. “Their model for kids is invaluable because they make them aware of the bigger picture.”
Makayla Huddleston and Ismael Halaweh saw the bigger picture after attending a Rotary Life Leadership Conference last summer. The two juniors returned to co-found of the school’s Interact Club.
“At the conference we met other students that were involved in their Rotary Clubs through Interact. They told us some of the projects they had completed and it sparked our interest. We wanted to form this club to give back to our community because our community has made us the individuals we are today," Makayla said.”
Thomas said the Interact Club raised money to purchase a wheelchair for a polio survivor in Nigeria, and will sponsor a Relay for Polio Race on June 15 that will have school track teams from Manistee, Bear Lake and Onekama, Benzie Central, Glen Lake and Traverse City Central each running approximately 14 miles of the 72-mile race route between West Shore Medical Center in Manistee and Munson Medical Center in Traverse City. Pledge donations will go to Rotary International’s efforts to rid the world of polio.
“Working with the Rotary members truly has been an amazing experience, Makayla said. “They have helped us build leadership and confidence. We have grown as students and have been taught many life skills in the process.”