Reservoir High students reach out to help families

For all they know, Reservoir High School juniors Avery Strott and Colleen Paraska might be taking classes with members of the family that they're helping with necessities like food and clothes for the holidays and beyond. The family's single mother, with whom they've spoken over the phone, could be someone they've passed time and again, at food courts, in a doctor's office, at school events.

The two girls are not allowed to know the identity of the family they're sponsoring as part of their community service project for their school branch of Distributive Education Clubs of America Inc., a Reston, Va.-based nonprofit organization that prepares students worldwide for work in marketing, finance, hospitality and management.

But they say the identity of the family doesn't matter. They hope that the family, which is in turn unaware of the sponsors' identity, comes to know them as two people who care enough to reach out to those in need.

Asked to sum up the experience of assisting the mother, Avery said, "The first word that came to my head was 'magical.' It makes me really happy to know that she needs help and I can provide that for her."

The girls do know that the family they are serving lives in Howard County, and that it includes five children — all girls — ranging in age from 7 to 16. And the family's mother knows that Avery and Colleen became involved as part of their school DECA project.

"We speak to them over the phone, and we do have contact with them," said Colleen, 15, "but they'd like to keep it confidential. We know information about them, but we don't meet them face to face. We know their first names, and we were able to speak to the mother about planning to help make the holidays easier for her. She was very thankful for what we were doing."

The students are preparing a project that they will ultimately present at a state competition, where Reservoir has excelled in recent years. But unlike Reservoir students before them who did DECA projects mainly around Thanksgiving and Christmas, the two have decided not to stop there.

"We wanted to take the holidays further," said Avery, 16. "After Christmas, we want to continue with maybe birthdays, Easter, some kind of spring trip for them."

"They've said, 'We've been doing the same thing every year, we want to take this project beyond,'" said Debra Dear, DECA adviser for Reservoir High School and instructional team leader for career and technology education.

The girls are now planning their Christmas donation. For Thanksgiving, they donated precooked meals from a Weis supermarket. The girls are working with Fulton-based Pangia Technologies to provide services for the family.

"You hear so many negative things about kids these days; these kids are just pretty impressive," said Bill Delinsky, Pangia co-founder and executive vice president. "You kind of realize that maybe the future isn't as bleak as some people say when you talk to these kids, in terms of how proactive and articulate they are.

"They are in the same mode of what I've seen in the kids I've dealt with over the last 21/2 years," said Delinsky. "They seem very ambitious, very focused on helping people in need, but also have a great interest in getting involved and understanding what it means to get involved in a business."

Though they say they've taken part in outreach work, albeit on a much smaller level, in the past, this project has given the students a greater appreciation for what it means to serve. They say they considered the family they're assisting while dining with their own families during Thanksgiving and have shared their experiences in conducting the project.

"Colleen takes her participation in DECA very seriously," said her mother, Shawni Paraska. "Her current project is very exciting and rewarding to her."

And as they have continued to work with the family, the girls say that they are not interested in knowing their identity, and that that probably won't change.

"Even though we're not meeting her face to face, we have spoken with her," Colleen said, "so we have built up a bit of a relationship with her.

"I think I like it better [not knowing] way because it proves that we're willing to help the community," Colleen added. "But we don't have to know you. It's something that we can just do out of the goodness of our hearts, just to want to help someone that we know could use the help."

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