Youths with special needs often find themselves on the receiving end of help. Few would argue that this support has a net negative effect, but some experts say constant reliance on others can take its toll on their self-esteem.
For two years, the Cape May County Special Services School District has sought to combat this through its CAPE KIDS CARE! program, a service group for students that organizers Marge Krah and Gina Lanza say has proven beneficial to those involved.
"It's very affirming when you realize you have value, and nobody can just tell you, 'You have value.' You have to go and experience that for yourself," Krah said during a recent project at a Habitat for Humanity home. "They're going to make this place look different and somebody is going to have a lawn because they were here today, and we can't replace that in any other setting."
On Nov. 5, several students cleaned and reseeded the lawns of two houses in the Whitesboro section of Middle Township that were damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
Student George Snyder operated a machine called a dethatcher, which churns up the top layer of soil in preparation for seeding. Snyder, who has worked on a few projects with CAPE KIDS CARE!, said doing good for others is a welcome change of pace.
"My whole life, people have been helping me out with the stuff I've been going through as a kid, and I just want to help give back to those who helped me and help everyone else," said Snyder, 19.
The group, established for the 2010-11 school year, complements the district's experiential learning curriculum, which Lanza began in 1985 as a way to help students build social skills and job readiness through real-world activities, including service.
Funding slowed in recent years, forcing Lanza to cut back on service projects. When Krah found a grant from Sprint Corp. worth $25,000 three years ago, she and Lanza used that as the seed money for CAPE KIDS CARE!, purchasing equipment and supplies.
The group does projects about once per month, Lanza said. In addition to Habitat for Humanity, they volunteer at local senior centers and veterans homes, participate in beach cleanups, help with construction projects at area businesses in need, and more.
Lanza said she has noticed a tangible change in students who have participated in the initiative.
"You could see their self-esteem. They start to feel better about themselves," Lanza said. "It's a simple concept, really."
While the $25,000 is long since used up, the district's education foundation has continued to fund the program, and local businesses also have been generous. Bob Smeltzer, of Smeltzer Seed and Feed, donated seed, feed and lime for the Nov. 5 effort, and Jim Hoelsworth, of Spring-Green Lawn Care, donated seed and the use of some of his equipment.
Lanza and Krah select students they believe fit well with each project, and although participation is optional, Lanza said she can't recall a student turning down a chance to help.
Habitat for Humanity often involves the district in its local builds. This partnership was organized by Ed Lanza, Gina's husband, who works in the district and is a Habitat board member.
Marielis Ruiz, whose home was one of those cleaned by students Nov. 5, worked in the district until 2008 - although this connection was a coincidence, she said. As someone experienced in working with youths with special needs, Ruiz said, she believes strongly in the program's mission.
"Special Services has been an awesome school for the students and helping out in the community, teaching them life skills, basically," Ruiz said. "It's awesome. They're doing a great job, and I'm going around trying to get to know each one of (the students)."
Contact Braden Campbell: