Senior Chris Steward helped build a school from recycled water bottles during a service trip to Costa Rica this summer.
Senior Chris Steward helped build a school from recycled water bottles during a service trip to Costa Rica this summer.
Community members load a bus with a supplies for a Long Island town after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. School counselor Laurie Rotondo said the large response is just one example of Robbinsville’s eagerness to help others.

Robbinsville High School students are learning life skills through volunteering

By Jessica Talarick

As summer vacation winds down, teenagers across the country are preparing for another year of projects, tests and papers. Robbinsville students have another task to finish in order to leave their high school’s hallowed halls.

On top of earning 140 credits and passing the High School Proficiency Assessment, Robbinsville High School students are required to complete 30 hours of community service to graduate.

The requirement is part of Robbinsville School District’s goal to mold students into upstanding citizens. Not only are students learning math, science, and history lessons; they are also learning how to contribute to their community after receiving their diploma.

According to school counselor Laurie Rotondo, the community service requirement was put in place when the district was building the high school in 2005. Every class since 2008, the first to graduate from the new school, has been asked to complete 30 hours of service.

“[The school board] thought the community service piece was an important part of becoming a good citizen,” Rotondo said.

Rotondo, who has worked at RHS since 2007, thinks volunteering gives students a taste of the real world before graduation.

“It opens their eyes that there is life outside of Robbinsville High School’s walls,” she said.

Students have from the moment they enter school as freshmen until the end of senior year to complete 30 hours of service. The guidance office keeps track of community service with a form, available online and at the school.

Students must have their service projects pre-approved by their counselors. Projects can range from traveling out of state to build houses with a church group to helping an elderly neighbor with yard work. While most service is approved, Rotondo says projects like organizing a fundraiser for a school club does not count.

“We’re pretty flexible,” Rotondo said. “If they’re doing good deeds we don’t want to stifle it, we want to encourage it.”

After volunteering, students are required to write a paragraph about how their work helped others and get the form signed by their supervisor. Next, they bring the completed form to their counselor, who logs it into a computer system and files it in each student’s folder. Students often reference these records for job and college applications.

Throughout her career, Rotondo has never seen a student fail to meet the requirement; she said most students do well over 30 hours of service. However, some students need an extra push.

Students who are struggling to complete the required hours can help out around the school by taking down bulletin boards or stuffing mailboxes.

Guidance counselors also send out emails to students and parents with information about organizations seeking volunteers. Rotondo said she and her colleagues send two to three of these emails a week.

Community service has fostered a bond between the school and the Robbinsville community. Students frequently work with local organizations like Riding High Farms, Trenton Area Soup Kitchen and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. They even started their own branch of March of Dimes.

Rotondo says the majority of students embrace the school’s community service requirement.

“People just want to help and give back,” Rotondo said. “It’s intrinsic in their families.”

She remembers shortly after Hurricane Sandy the guidance office sent an email asking for donations to support a struggling community in Long Island. The response was overwhelming. RHS students and their families brought huge bags of supplies to the school. So many donations poured in that the staff needed a school bus to transport the items.

Robbinsville High School’s reach has extended far beyond Long Island. Some students have travelled out of the country for service projects.

Senior Chris Steward was already building up hours helping the school’s wrestling team run tournaments when his mother showed him the website for a volunteer organization called Global Leadership Adventures, which takes groups of teens to Africa, Asia and Latin America for service-learning trips.

Last year Steward joined GLA on a trip to the Dominican Republic; he traveled to Costa Rica this summer. During his 10-day trip to Costa Rica, Steward helped build a school from recycled water bottles, worked on a reforestation project, cleaned beaches and constructed a playground from used tires.

Steward says thanks to the trips, he has well over 30 hours of service, but what he gained from the experience is more than the ability to graduate in the spring.

“While I was in both Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic, I saw what true poverty was, and it makes me appreciate what I have more,” Steward said.

He thinks volunteering abroad, as well as in his hometown, has helped him grow into a confident young adult.

“I’ve become more generous because I’ve seen what I could do to help” Steward said.

Senior Samantha Leonard has also traveled beyond Robbinsville’s borders for service. She is one of the many Robbinsville teens who participate in Appalachia Service Project through their church group. ASP volunteers help repair homes for low-income residents of central Appalachia.

Leonard and about 50 of her peers spend a year fundraising for the trip, which costs $23,000. Then, they drove vans down to Kentucky for one week of community service.

During the trip, she was asked to repair a roof for a woman whose home was filled with buckets to collect leaking rain water. When Leonard got onto the roof she could see straight into the woman’s house.

Leonard said traveling to Kentucky with Project Appalachia helped her break out of the “Robbinsville bubble.”

“I gained a broader sense of awareness knowing people come from other backgrounds,” Leonard said.

She says volunteering gave her experience she might not otherwise had in high school, like working for a boss. She also thinks being responsible for finishing the paperwork and handing it in on time develops student’s independence.

Rotondo says volunteering near and far has developed a tight knit community at the school.

“As citizens and community members of Robbinsville we have become closer by giving back,” Rotondo said.

Even as algebraic equations and history facts begin to fade away, Robbinsville graduates will have learned the value of willing to lend a helping hand.