Catonsville elementary school community service group expands

The students of the EPIK Kids in Action after-school program at Westchester Elementary School in Catonsville were told to bring socks and bandanas to their meeting last Tuesday, with no explanation why.

When they got to Kim Noppenberger's classroom, they were told what they were going to do: make toys for cats at the SPCA of Anne Arundel County.

Before they started, teacher Maria Buker explained how the Annapolis-based, no-kill shelter rescues and cares for animals. The nonprofit was chosen because the mother of a student is a veterinarian in the Annapolis area and she had a contact there, she said.

The children were asked to bring the materials to show them how household items can be reused to do good in the community, Buker said.

The students drew faces on the socks and bandanas and filled them with cotton and a pinch of catnip before tying them up and placing them in a box bound for the SPCA.

"Some cats aren't as lucky as others, like some people aren't as lucky as others," said Elliott White, a fifth-grader. "So having these toys is going to make them happier."

The is the first year of the Kids in Action program at Westchester Elementary, designed to provide school children with community service opportunities. Once students enter middle school, they are required to log 75 community service hours prior to graduating high school. Volunteer work in elementary school is not included.

The free club started with about 25 third-, fourth- and fifth grade students at the beginning of the school year before expanding to about 50 in January.

Over the course of the school year, projects have included a cleanup of the school grounds, a candy drive for troops overseas, thank-you notes for teachers, holiday greetings for nursing home residents and goodie bags for firefighters and police officers.

"You help out the community and it's actually turned out to be really fun," said 9-year-old Jack McGuinn, a third-grader. "It's nice because a lot of people have trust in you.

Kids in Action started at Hillcrest Elementary School under the direction of teacher Kate Jaudon about a decade ago. In 2015, Ellie McIntire, owner of EPIK Home Group of Keller Williams Realty Centre in Columbia, noticed a change in behavior of her son, after he took part in the club. When she realized the teacher was purchasing supplies for the projects, she started a nonprofit to fund the program.

Since EPIK came on board in January 2016, 2.5 percent of each commission check went to the nonprofit, according to Laura Ratta, communications manager at the realty group and EPIK's liaison at Westchester Elementary School. After selling 82 homes last year, the company provided more than $15,000 toward the program — enough to start it at Westchester.

This year, when the company makes its 100th home sale, it will donate 100 percent of its commission to the nonprofit — the company declined to say how much that would be, saying it could widely vary depending on the price of the home sold and specific commissions are proprietary.

When school administrators put out a call for teachers to advise the group at Westchester Elementary, three teachers who live within a mile from the school expressed interest — Noppenberger, Buker and Kim Brady.

"Watching them serve and be excited about serving others is really cool," said Buker, who has taught at the school since it opened in 1998. "To see the big heart that's inside of them, the fact that they want to do this and not run home and play video games, to make a human impact, you can't put words to that."

Some students from the clubs at both Hillcrest and Westchester — there are about 150 students involved at Hillcrest — will come together later in the month to clean up yards of local seniors.

Ratta said the company hopes to expand the program to Catonsville and Westowne elementary schools in the next school year.

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