MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — While most of the students at Middle Township High School shuffled out of the building on a recent afternoon, several students stayed to talk about ways to help the needy in their community.
At the start of the meeting for the school’s Interact Club, club vice president Veronica Biederman, a junior, talked about recruiting more members. She also distributed handouts to give to members’ friends.
The students had a few pitches for what makes them like the teenage extension of Rotary International: it looks good on the college resume, it’s fun at times and it’s also fulfilling.
“You should help other people, because you don’t know when you’re going to be down,” said senior Alexis Szathmary, of Dennis Township.
Students in the club organize a variety of community service events throughout their area, serving hot meals to residents in Wildwood, bringing supplies to the Cape May County Animal Shelter and even recently sorting donations for Hurricane Sandy victims.
About 3,000 teens and pre-teens participate in 45 different Interact Clubs throughout South Jersey, most of which are based out of area high schools. Absegami, Atlantic City, Holy Spirit, Mainland, Sacred Heart, Vineland and St. Joseph high schools are among schools that have their own clubs.
In Cape May County, only Middle and Ocean City high schools have clubs. Middle’s started about four years ago, but really began generating interest in the past two years.
The clubs work with their local Rotary chapter, and for Middle that is the Rotary Club of the Mid Jersey Cape.
“It’s a great path for them for lifelong community service and to develop leadership skills,” said Francey Burke, president of the local Rotary club and advertising manager for Cape May Court House-based Burke Motor Group.
High schools often have several community service clubs, and at Middle that includes the Key Club, an extension of Kiwanis International, and the Red Cross Club. What is distinct about Rotary’s Interact Clubs is that they also focus on international projects; the name itself is short for international action.
“It allows the students to give back globally and locally,” said Melanie Druziako, Interact Club director for Rotary International’s South Jersey district.
In March, about 20 student Interact Club members from Absegami, Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Newfield, Gloucester County, Sacred Heart and Vineland high schools will travel to the Dominican Republic for annual service projects. This year they plan to go to an orphanage and perform a medical needs assessment, start a recycling program, begin a small farm and paint walls with artwork.
Local Rotary clubs help facilitate some of the work these Interact Clubs do with funding assistance. In Middle, Burke’s club has provided money so the students can do good deeds without spending time on fundraising.
“We don’t have to worry about bake sales,” said teacher and club advisor Jon Decker. “We can just do events.”
Decker and co-advisor Colleen Dillon have been important in helping to grow their school’s club, which now holds about one event a month, Burke said. That’s very active for one of these clubs, she added.
“I’m just thrilled,” Burke said at the most recent Interact Club meeting. “You guys are doing so much in the community.”
The next big event the Rotary is organizing, along with help from the Interact Club, is the “Get In Gear For Rotary” bike-a-thon on May 4. About 65 riders participated last year, and more than 100 are expected this year, with proceeds to be donated locally.
The students said they are looking forward to it.
“It feels good to help out in the community,” said Mary Beth Crews, a senior from Cape May Court House.
Burke said locals feel good about the club, too.
“They’ve really done well,” she said. “The kids are flourishing, the club’s doing great and the community is the beneficiary.”
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