DANVILLE — For the last 3 years, Schlarman Academy seniors have been raising money for their class trip.
They sold popcorn and cookie dough and held 50-50 raffles at athletic events. They also partnered with Culver's to hold Share Night fundraisers.
But instead of visiting a big city or taking a ski trip like classes before them, the Class of 2019 decided to use its money — $4,000 and some change — to do service projects throughout the community.
"I have three older brothers, and I watched them go on their senior class trip," said Carrigan Gard, who had looked forward to taking her turn since she was in grade school."It's just a time for all of us to bond before we go our separate ways.
"But I felt doing this would be more rewarding," she said. "It's going to be more memorable because we're helping people."
So how did they come up with the idea?
Over the summer, classmates thought about what to do for their last hurrah, said Faith Wright and Chloe Miller.
Previous groups "went to Chicago or St. Louis or Indy," Miller said. "They would come back with stories: 'Oh, we had a good time.'"
"But we couldn't really agree on where to go," Wright added.
That's when someone threw out the idea of not going anywhere. Instead, they could call around to local organizations to see what they needed and use their trip funds to help with projects.
Not one of the 23 seniors balked.
"We immediately started brainstorming ideas," Sarah Craig recalled. "Instead of just a few of us deciding where to go and everyone else just going along with it, everyone can give their input on how we use the money."
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Blake Leonard, a science teacher and senior class sponsor, said the class volunteered at the Vermilion County Animal Shelter in January and donated about $300 worth of dog food, treats, leashes and toys.
In February, they helped out with the annual Valentine's Day party at WorkSource Enterprises, which provides residents 16 and older with developmental or physical disabilities with employment opportunities and skills to be successful in the workplace and live an independent life.
"They jumped right in as if they'd been here a million times before," said Todd Seabaugh, WorkSource's vice president of program development.
They did arts-and-crafts projects and played games with the 50 or so WorkSoure clients in the morning, served lunch, then helped with a dance and cleaned up in the afternoon.
"That was probably the best part of the afternoon — watching the karaoke and the dancing," Seabaugh said with a laugh. "Everyone had a great time."
The clients "were so excited and appreciative to have them there," he continued, adding that the students brought "a young, fun energy and really connected with them. When (the Schlarman students) were leaving ... five to seven (clients) were asking them when they were coming back."
On Friday, a dozen Schlarman seniors boarded the minibus and headed to Mark Denman Elementary School to lead activities for two Functional Life Skills classes. The K-6 students have Down syndrome, autism or other disabilities, and most are nonverbal.
Craig's mother, Michele Craig, and their cousin, Lisa Cottrell, are the teachers, so the younger Craig has visited many times.
"Whenever school gets out early or we have a day off, I love going to my mom's classroom to hang out with the kids. It's tons of fun," she said. "My classmates hear me talk about it all the time. I'm so glad they got to come here and experience it for themselves."
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After introductions, the seniors fanned out to play with the younger students at different stations. Sydney Gouard and Janiah Newell, both members of Schlarman's two-time defending state champion girls' basketball team, were impressed when Sincere Kelly, a third-grader, spun a spinner then a wooden puzzle board on his pointer finger.
"He can spin anything," Cottrell said.
Across the room, Gouard and Newell's teammate, Destiny Dye, entertained Leart Ajdini by blowing bubbles.
"To hear that happy squeal is awesome," said Michele Craig, who couldn't stop grinning either.
Cottrell said she teared up when she learned the seniors were forgoing their trip to do the service project. It happened again as she watched them read to and play with the younger students, give them hugs and high fives, and cradle them in their laps as they sat on the floor doing one of two special activities — "making" blankets.
"They're so excited to have someone to play with," Cottrell said of her charges. "This will make their whole week."
"It's incredibly selfless," her colleague added, as she watched Gard and senior Sarita Kumpuckal knot the ends of the blanket. Jaylynn Rangel, a kindergartner, sat contentedly in between them, while her classmate Cora Montegerard played peek-a-boo with the blanket.
"We were a little worried about how some of the kids would react to all of the new faces," Michele Craig said. "But they're eating it up and loving it."
At a nearby table, seniors Ana Fitzgerald and Daniel De La Hoya gave high fives to kindergartner Steven Richardson, then helped make a St. Patty's Day treat for the room. As happy as the younger kids appeared, De La Hoya said he felt he was getting more from his interactions with them than they were.
"They're just so enjoyable to be with," De La Hoya said. "It's just a nice feeling to be able to give back."
Leonard said he's incredibly proud of the seniors. He said the time they've put in to the projects went above and beyond the 100 hours of community service work that's required to graduate.
"This might be the class I'll miss the most," said Leonard, a teacher since 2007. "They've learned that giving to someone is far more rewarding than doing something for themselves. It's become second nature to them."