VIRGINIA BEACH -- The Month of the Military Child kicked off April 2 in a big way for 10 middle school students, members of the Fire Ninjas Torch Club at NAS Oceana Child and Youth Programs (CYP). The 11 to 13-year-olds thought they were just going to help serve a special thank you dinner for military families, instead, they found themselves called up and presented a check for $1,000, as the third place winner in the national Linking Hearts & Hands National Service Project, through the Boys and Girls Clubs.
The Torch Club’s project, “InSight to Senses” was selected from 250 entries worldwide and earned the group the cash award from the Staples Foundation, the charitable arm of the office supply store.
“We’re proud to recognize your club because of the incredible work you’ve done as part of the InSight to Senses project … through your efforts, you’ve really made an impact on others. In the process, you’ve realized the power of your actions and demonstrated your ability to set a goal, work hard at achieving it and succeed, while helping others,” said Richard Coleman, regional vice president for Staples, before presenting the check.
With Coleman, who is based in Framingham, Mass., were three Virginia Beach representatives, John Whitley, district sales manager; Joseph Barlow, business development associate; and Lindsey Patto, B2B sales consultant. The four toured the Oceana Youth Center, enjoyed the family dinner and participated in several team building games with club members, parents and staff following the presentation.
Capt. Bob Geis, Commanding Officer, NAS Oceana, who attended the award ceremony, praised CYP staff and Torch Club members. Geis presented “You Make a Difference” awards to Torch Club Advisor Donna Minson and CYP Assistant Ariel Miller.
“Anytime you get an opportunity to thank kids for doing great things, it’s time well spent. These kids are a great example to all the other kids here. These kids are doing great stuff every day,” said Geis.
He said that while there are a lot of negative stories in the media about kids and teens, and the Torch Club members deserved to be recognized for their efforts that earned them third place out of 250 entries.
“Thanks to the Staples Foundation, too, for recognizing the kids,” added Geis.
The theme of the contest was “Children helping Children in Need,” and preparation began last September. After the club researched several different ideas, they decided to help those with visual impairments, in part, to honor of one of their members, Hayley Maydak, who has difficulty seeing. An online search found the Virginia Association for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments (VAAPVI), which has a Hampton Roads chapter.
Club members created 13 audio books, which were burned to CDs and designed four bright donation boxes to gather sensory items, such as musical instruments, stress balls, dolls and stuffed animals, all “things they could touch and feel and hear,” explained Minson.
When the project was completed, Minson invited VAAPVI President Dawn Peifer, whose daughter Kimmie is completely blind, to speak the club on Dec. 8. Minson said both Kimmie and Maydak explained what it’s like to be visually impaired. The Torch Club then presented the donations to VAAPVI.
The Torch Club also earned a merit award from BGCA with a prize of $500 from the Staples Foundation for a second project they completed as part of the “Military Parent 2 Kid Connection.” Parents were invited to the youth center for four hours on a Saturday last fall, where they were treated to fun family and team building activities with their children.
“It was to get the kids to show the parents what we do here, show them around and get the parents to be a kid for a day,” explained Minson.
This isn’t the first year the middle schoolers have completed a community service project. In 2010, they collected items for a low income community center in Norfolk, wrapped the gifts, made cards and delivered the donations, just in time for Christmas.
Minson is somewhat amazed that the Fire Ninjas accomplish as much as they do.
“I have them for half an hour in the morning before school and maybe an hour and a half afterwards,” she explained.
Minson makes the best use of that time, explaining, “I really want to make my middle school program more about community service – giving, instead of getting. I want to teach about a lot of community service – giving to the children in our club, especially the little ones, being role models and mentors.” She added how she also stresses being mature and “doing the right thing.”
Julianne Blackburn, 11, is in her first year as a Torch Club member.
“I loved reading the audio books,” said Blackburn, who is a sixth grader at Princess Anne Middle School.
“We did it for Hayley. This was a way to help her and show our appreciation of her,” explained Blackburn, whose parents are both active duty – Aviation Structural Mechanic 1st Class (AW) Jeffrey Blackburn is stationed at Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106 on the Super Hornet side and Aviation Electrician’s Mate 2nd Class (AW) Patti Blackburn is deployed with VFA-11.
The middle schooler can rattle off a list of reasons why she likes the Torch Club.
“I like Miss Donna. We do a lot of cool stuff, all the projects we do and how much fun it is and I learn a lot more than I used to know,” she said.
The Fire Ninjas Torch Club members will vote on how to spend the $1,000 prize. While the club hasn’t made a final decision, they are looking at attending the Boys and Girls Club retreat at Camp Silver Beach on Virginia’s Eastern Shore at the end of April and maybe spending the day at Motor World in Virginia Beach with the remaining funds.