Jimmy Gradowski found that spending some of his free time away from school working on community service projects was fun.
The Carl Sandburg High School sophomore joined the Orland Township Youth Commission about a year and a half ago, at the behest of Aaron Grudowski, another avid commission member. Gradowski was interested in earning the Cook County Sheriff’s Office Youth Service Medal, a distinction given to teens participating in community service. But in time, he found other reasons to keep attending the monthly commission meetings.
“This was a way to have fun doing the work,” Gradowski said. “There are great experiences to be had. You really don’t ever leave unhappy.”
On Nov. 9, he and about 35 other teenagers from the area spent their evening sorting through non-perishable food items that were donated to needy families for Thanksgiving dinners. The teens’ families donated nearly all of the food items.
The Thanksgiving food baskets are one of several recurring projects the commission works on throughout the year. With Christmas around the corner, the group will now focus on gathering gifts, said Orland Township Youth and Family Services Coordinator Alison Boutcher.
“The next program they’ll be involved in is Adopt a Family,” Boutcher said. “(Orland Township Food Pantry Coordinator) Marianne Hill has asked us to focus on adopting teenagers, because they sometimes don’t get the gifts. It’s easy to buy for young kids. Teenagers obviously know what they want, so they bring in things they think others would want.”
While between 35 and 40 teens regularly attend the monthly meetings, Boutcher said she maintains a contact list of about 100 teens from around the area. Each teen signed up to be notified about different community efforts that might need an extra pair of hands.
“Some of them just get the email about an event we need help with, and they’ll just show up,” Boutcher said. “Not everyone can do things on Wednesday nights. The teens have increasingly busier lives.”
The meetings often start with a meal followed by social games, such as working in groups to answer trivia questions.
“I recommend this for kids who have a hard time interacting with others,” Boucher said.
Viktoria Rekasius, a Sandburg sophomore, also has found comfort in the atmosphere built at meetings over the last couple years.
“You meet a lot of different kids,” Rekasius said. “Lots of us do other things, have jobs, but it always works out and we get a lot done. Everyone is friendly. No one is mean. We don’t turn people away or judge people.”
Aaron Grudowski has seen a steady increase in participants since he started attending meetings and working on projects.
“We were down to less than 20 people about a year and a half ago,” said Grudowski, also a Sandburg sophomore. “But we’ve been getting more and more members over the last couple months. It’s not like you’ll be the only one here in a corner by yourself.”
Gradowski, Rekasius and Gudowski were all awarded the Cook County Sheriff’s Office Youth Service Medal earlier in the month for completing at least 100 hours of community service in a year. Grudowski earned over 200 hours and gave a speech at the recognition event.
Fellow Sandburg sophomore and commission participant Jennifer Coners also won the award.
“You’re almost always going to meet new people at the meetings,” Coners said, about what keeps her coming back to the youth commission meetings. “Just give it a try.”