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Students look to end hunger
Volunteer of the Year
A group representing the Liberty County High School student body on Monday poses with the schools award for Student Organization Volunteer of the Year, which students won for their initiative with the Backpack Buddies program. - photo by Photo by Danielle Hipps

Volunteer hours may be a graduation requirement, but many Liberty County High School Panthers likely have exceeded their minimums — and they’ve fed hungry children in their own community in the process.
The Liberty County High School student body was named Student Organization Volunteer of the Year for its support of the Backpack Buddies program, which sends students in need home with weekend meals.
Collectively, the school of about 1,100 students contributes about $1,300 each month to provide meals to about 120 students at Liberty and Joseph Martin elementary schools.
Principal Paula Scott said those schools were chosen because they feed into LCHS, and it’s a way of “taking care of our own.”
And each week, a different group of students provides about four hours of manpower to help sort and pack the bags.
Softball player Victoria Anthony, a junior, said she and other athletes got to bond during their packing time.
“I had a fun time when we were packing because we had an assembly line going on,” Anthony said.
Life-skills teacher Angela McDonnell will lead her students this semester in packing bags each Thursday, a job that takes between three and four hours.   
For her students, McDonnell said the opportunity enhances teamwork skills, punctuality and proper dress.
“My students have gone six times total if you include last year, and they’re excited to go to work, and we talk about things like what the backpacks are for,” McDonnell said.  
Junior football player Raekwon McMillan said his sport donates money from fundraisers and parent support.
“A little thing for the community really means a lot to most people,” McMillan said.  
“Really, every club sponsor and coach committed to using some of their fundraised funds to support Backpack Buddies,” Principal Paula Scott said. “So they either give a certain amount each month or they give it at the beginning of the year for the entire year. When we decided to do it, we wanted it to be long-term.”
“We’ll sell little goodie bags during holidays, boo-grams, Valentine-grams,” senior Michael Barcena said about wider efforts. The grams are 50 cents each.
Scott said she learned about the national program through a People magazine article and was approached shortly after by United Way of the Coastal Empire Liberty County Director Jennifer Darsey, who asked the Panthers to get involved with the program.
When students, sponsors and coaches were asked to participate, “every single one of them said that they would be on board with it,” Scott said.  
Some groups — such as the ROTC, school-wide programs and individual staff members — provide heavy funding. Others are not able to offer as much money, but they make it up with manpower.
“It felt amazing because getting to know that a child goes home on the weekend with food to eat is great, and you get to help people and know that you’re doing your job in the community,” senior Gabriella Anthony said about volunteering.
Stephen Keiler, a senior in the ROTC program, said the project hits close to home since he has family members who attend Liberty Elementary School, and he may be helping their friends.
“It means a lot,” Keiler said.
Scott said the recognition should motivate students to continue to perform community service and inspire others to get involved.
“We feel it is important for our students to volunteer because it teaches important lessons that can’t be learned from a textbook,” Scott said. “Students learn about empathy, generosity, sharing and compassion, and these are all character traits that will serve them well in their future.”
The students agreed. They said winning the honor will drive them to continue the work.  
“It puts us on the map,” senior Gabriella Anthony said.
“I think it’s important for all of our kids, too, because you have to step outside of your little circle of friends and family that you interact with on a day-to-day basis and realize that you’re a part of a much larger community,” Scott said. “And there are always going to be people within whatever community you live in who need your help. I’m just proud that our students and our staff are willing to step up.”

Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series about volunteers of the year recent named by the Coastal Courier and Liberty County United Way.

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