Mehlville School District’s Project ENGAGE to promote volunteerism throughout community

Goal is for all students to do at least one service project.

By EVAN YOUNG

Volunteerism is nothing new for Mehlville School District students, but starting this week they’ll be able to get an idea of just how much they give back to their community.

Project ENGAGE — Enriching Neighborhoods through Generous Actions, Growth and Empowerment — kicks off tomorrow, Jan. 14. A districtwide initiative, Project ENGAGE is designed to encourage every Mehlville student — as well as district families and staff — to not only help others who are in need but to also think about the impact of their service so that they keep giving back to the community in the future, according to Deputy Superintendent Eric Knost.

“As educators, our role is to educate the whole child. Developing character and citizenship in our students is part of our call as educators,” Knost stated in a district news release. “Project ENGAGE allows the Mehlville School District community to learn about our surrounding community, and it also helps us to teach our students how to find the value in helping others.”

Every school will kick off Project ENGAGE tomorrow with assemblies and other activities. The initiative will culminate during the National Week of Service, April 17 through April 23, but several service projects already are under way, and officials are encouraging them to continue long after April.

Students can participate in service projects on their own or with their family, or in the projects planned for their entire class or school, Knost said. Every student who completes a project will be given a Project ENGAGE bracelet — not as a reward but a way for teachers to keep track of how many students participate, he said.

While the program is optional, Knost said the goal is for all of Mehlville’s more than 10,000 students to complete at least one service project.

Class and schoolwide projects range from writing letters and sending care packages to troops overseas to providing food for the homeless in downtown St. Louis. Students also are volunteering with such organizations as Toys for Tots, Feed My People, the St. Louis Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Fisher House and several nursing homes.

Project ENGAGE also extends beyond the Mehlville community. Pupils in Washington Middle School foreign language teacher Sarah Torretta’s class have been sending letters and workbooks through St. Louis-based charity Sheltering Wings to an African orphanage where she has visited.

Torretta also is the faculty sponsor of the WMS National Junior Honor Society, which she said already has volunteered countless hours and raised thousands of dollars for various projects.

“I think that the point of it is that all of these projects are part of Project ENGAGE, but we’ve never had an umbrella label over it before,” Torretta said. “Some of (the projects) are more micro-manageable, like finding an amount of money or an amount of hours, and some of them are simply about the experience.”

The idea for Project ENGAGE came out of Knost’s nearly four years working on building character education in Mehlville, he said.

“I was taking inventories of character education-like activities being done in buildings, and we were doing a whole lot districtwide,” he said. “But we didn’t have a common thread running through the district of all these things, and each year the activities were growing because we were ramping up character education.

“So that’s where I think the thought was birthed, just the idea of pulling the whole district together and highlighting in one time frame all the great stuff the kids are doing and all those learning opportunities where they’re giving back for the right reasons, not because someone’s rewarding them.”

Blades Elementary School has adopted a theme based on the children’s book “Have You Filled a Bucket Today?”

“It’s a book about filling people’s buckets with good things,” Blades music teacher Laurie Tretter-Larkin said. “We started the year off relating that to behavior, but we’ve kind of turned it into also relating to doing service for others, which relates to Project ENGAGE.”

The school will sponsor a “100 Percent Day of Giving” on Feb. 27. Volunteer organizations will present ways pupils can give back to the community, and classes will pair up with those organizations to complete a service project.

Pupils and staff award each other with “bucket drops” when they are caught displaying good behavior or helping others, Tretter-Larkin said.

In addition, each class this year has adopted a soldier serving in Iraq, including Blades secretary Melea Genthon’s son, Nick.

“We also have a blog that we created, and the soldiers know about and can check that blog,” Tretter-Larkin said. “We’re posting what the kids are doing to help others in honor of those soldiers in Iraq.”

Project ENGAGE, she said, “is about empowering kids to do the right thing, and to put into their minds that even though they may only be 5 or 10 years old, they can still make a difference in their world.”