Service with a smile earns Notre Dame Prep senior national recognition

Owings Mills Times
Service with a smile earns Notre Dame Prep senior national recognition

She organizes food and clothing drives for children. She mentors middle-school girls. She was elected governor of a statewide youth and government club. She volunteers at a Baltimore nonprofit on homelessness. She's even led the blood drive at her school.

It would seem that Helena Baffoe-Bonnie hardly has time for her studies. Yet the 17-year-old senior from Owings Mills is an honor student at Notre Dame Preparatory School, a Catholic girls' school, and her community activities have not gone unnoticed.

Last February, Baffoe-Bonnie received the President's Volunteer Service Award, a prestigious honor that recognizes Americans who go the extra mile in community service.

The award was established in 2003 and is sponsored by the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency, and the Points of Light Institute. It is based on the number of certified-community service hours in different age categories.

In Baffoe-Bonnie's case, that represents 300 volunteer hours in the past three years for, among others, Notre Dame Prep's Christian Community Awareness Program (CCAP), Sisters Academy Summer Sports Camp and Health Care for the Homeless.

"I didn't know about the award until I won," said Baffoe-Bonnie, who received a certificate and a letter signed by President Barack Obama.

"It was a surprise because, at Notre Dame Prep, community service is emphasized," she continued. "There are lots of opportunities for it."

The comment was typical Baffoe-Bonnie, at least according to Notre Dame Prep teacher Joan Carlson, who has known her since her freshman year.

"She's very humble but a great leader who always puts others first. She is always in the background making sure everything is taken care of," said Carlson, who also serves as campus minister and moderator of CCAP, where Baffoe-Bonnie is currently president.

On a brisk March day, Baffoe-Bonnie talked about the presidential award and her school activities in between classes. A clue to her many activities were the pins attached to the lapel of her blue blazer, from service clubs to the National Honor Society.

"I'm interested in science, and also politics and international affairs," said Baffoe-Bonnie, whose calm and poise are unusual in someone so young.

Baffoe-Bonnie was born in Ghana. She was 11 months old when her parents, George and Jocelyn, immigrated to the United States and eventually settled in the Baltimore area.

"They came for work opportunities and to raise a family," said Baffoe-Bonnie, whose father is a physician and her mother a stay-at-home mom. She has two younger siblings, Jude, 14, and Janice, 8.

Baffoe-Bonnie has attended Catholic parochial schools her entire life, starting with Holy Family Church in Randallstown, Sacred Heart in Glyndon and, starting in ninth grade, Notre Dame Prep, in Towson, with 781 students in grades six through 12.

"I liked the strong athletic department," said Baffoe-Bonnie, a member of Notre Dame Prep's tennis team. "I liked the strong academics. And, it has lots of clubs."

Baffoe-Bonnie quickly made her mark. "I look for things to do," she said. "I'm occupied all the time."

Carlson can attest to that. She saw Baffoe-Bonnie rise through the ranks of CCAP to her current leadership role. The club holds a number of events for its mission of social justice and charity in the local and global community. Baffoe-Bonnie has been involved in everything from a bake sale and blood drive to an adopt-a-family project at Christmas.

This spring, Baffoe-Bonnie will be one of 15 girls who will spend a week in El Salvador, where the club raises money for high school and college scholarships. "The girls will stay in local families' homes, where there is usually no running water and no bathrooms," while they spend time with community members, Carlson said.

Aimee Sann knows Baffoe-Bonnie through her participation in the Speech and Debate Club. Baffoe-Bonnie is vice president of the club, which competes against other schools in local and national tournaments. The way Sann, club moderator, describes the tournaments, they are both grueling and challenging.

Students are given a question on national or international current events. For example, should the U.S. get more involved in the battle against ISIS? They have 30 minutes to prepare and memorize the answer, which can be no longer than seven minutes.

"She does well in the tournaments," said Sann, a teacher who, like Carlson, has known Baffoe-Bonnie since her freshman year. "She speaks fluently and is intelligently persuasive."

Last year, a national tournament was held at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass. Some of the Notre Dame Prep team, including Baffoe-Bonnie, competed against 400 students from around the country.

"It was Presidents Day Weekend and it snowed heavily. We were afraid she wouldn't make it because she lives far out. Her family had to dig out the driveway but she got to the airport in time," Sann said.

Patrick Diamond knows Baffoe-Bonnie in a context that is different from that of her teachers. As volunteer coordinator for Health Care for the Homeless, a Baltimore-based nonprofit, he oversees her and another Notre Dame Prep student, LeeOndra Epps, during their current semesterlong internship.

The students volunteer in the pediatric program. "They are working on a design and storage system for donations of clothing, toys and other items, space availability and child safety," he said. "They are researching closet organizer systems, and will consult with our staff to determine what they'd like."

Diamond calls Baffoe-Bonnie "very mature and professional." He said, "She approaches this project seriously. It's a joy to work with her and with people who are interested in the work we do."

Despite her unruffled appearance, Baffoe-Bonnie may not see herself that way. She likes crafts and sewing. In typical teenage fashion, she enjoys hanging out with friends, going to the movies and eating out at wherever.

As for the future, she talks about enrolling in a premedical track in college, becoming a doctor and, somehow, working on a global level.

"I'd like to combine service, science and public speaking," she said.

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