"I knew it was important to help create a desire to volunteer in the next generation."
Nearly three year ago, retired teacher Cindy Craig, 58, of Prescott Valley, AZ, started Youth Count, a youth volunteer corps, in her community. In one project, teens learn sign language and how it can be used with people other than the hearing-impaired. More than 500 youth participate in activities that range from working with seniors to grantmaking.
What kind of philanthropic or volunteer work did/do you do?
Cindy: I work with over 550 teens in our county as director of the Youth Volunteer Corps. Our nonprofit agency, Youth Count, engages students in service learning, including leadership opportunities, nonprofit boards, and youth philanthropy (currently we have a teen who sits on our county's foundation board as part of a subcommittee). They have learned that in order to give, sometimes it takes resources. Last year the students were offered a mini-grant to be grantmakers, but after offering a fall and spring round of mini-grants, they found out they were having difficulty sustaining the pot of money, so they are currently researching a youth business enterprise.
In the two-and-a-half years Youth Count has been around, they have made major impacts in all segments of the community. The teens are visible at the state level of government, having been asked to serve on Governor's Task Forces, and they have received the Governor's Award for youth group volunteering two out of two years. Many of the students have received the President's Service Award, and some of the AmeriCorps members who mentor the teens will be earning their Call to Service Award for 4,000 hours.
What is the name and location of the organization?
Cindy: Youth Count, 3343 N. Windsong #6, Prescott Valley, AZ 86314
Tell us about the project, especially who benefited from this work.
Cindy: One of the projects is Hands in Action. A middle school student who is hard of hearing created this project. Hands in Action teaches hearing students Sign Language so they can communicate with non-hearing students. Silent Saturdays are days when the students can focus on a topic to communicate on. For the first Silent Saturday, the students went to Wendy's for lunch. The students had to sign each other's lunch order. If they messed up, the other person had to eat whatever they got. The students were so surprised to see that the Wendy's kids bag had Sign Language on the side of it.
The benefits have been multifaceted. Hearing students are getting a leap ahead of their college foreign language requirements since Sign Language is accepted as a foreign language. The students also work in a nursing home and have found out that Sign Language can be used with the seniors, some of whom are slowly losing their hearing. The signing also helps arthritis.
What inspired you to get involved?
Cindy: I became interested in this project when a 12-year-old little girl started telling her friends that she had a speech impediment instead of a hearing problem because she felt they would criticize her less. She has now become the hero and expert in the group and has found an identity.
How did you first get involved? Give us some details.
Cindy: When I retired from teaching, I was looking for something to do, and an AmeriCorps position was open. Although it is very unusual to be with AmeriCorps for three years (the maximum you can do), I did just that. I started the community volunteer center and then jumped into the Youth Volunteer Corps. I love all kids and wanted to empower them. Volunteers were declining, and I knew it was important to help create a desire to volunteer in the next generation. The kids love it, and it gives them something productive to participate in; besides, they have made a big difference in the community.
What is/was the best thing about your experience?
Cindy: Seeing the kids grow and seeing a community that is inclusive of all people. Some students create pottery bowls at the blind center's studio, some grant wishes for seniors, some are decision makers.
What is/was the hardest part?
Cindy: Transportation is an issue for teens. However, it was not difficult to get Sign Language instructors to volunteer their time.
What was the biggest surprise?
Cindy: The biggest surprise is how many lives the project touches. The students also learned that dogs can sign and that signing is great for mothers and non-verbal babies to communicate. We hope to expand the program to teach signing to those groups, also.
What new things have you learned as a result of your experience and how have you changed as a result?
Cindy: I learned that there are only 100 interpreters in the state of Arizona. Yet schools have to provide an interpreter and a note taker for each hearing-impaired student taking college classes. It is a big expense, and there is a big need for signers. I also learned that deaf people have their own humor, and they resent being treated as if they have a handicap.
The students have learned that if you are a grantmaker, you have to be ethical, and that it is important to go by the rules of the application even if there is a good project but they did not fill out the paperwork. They have also learned that money does not grow on trees and that volunteering is wonderful but it is important to give money, also. The youth in philanthropy board is expected to help raise or donate at least $5, but they are now researching how to bring in more funds, like a Bank on Kids coin donation project.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of getting involved in philanthropy or volunteering?
Cindy: Do it.
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