Giving back: Wheeler club heads to Texas for hurricane cleanup

From left, members of Wheeler High School's 2018 Gives Back Club Chris Orr, Anna Hundt, Kevin Velez, Kelsey MarcAurele and Matt Mendolia are seen in this undated photo. The students will be heading to Texas this coming week to help with hurricane cleanup efforts. (Courtesy of Rebecca Schilke)
From left, members of Wheeler High School's 2018 Gives Back Club Chris Orr, Anna Hundt, Kevin Velez, Kelsey MarcAurele and Matt Mendolia are seen in this undated photo. The students will be heading to Texas this coming week to help with hurricane cleanup efforts. (Courtesy of Rebecca Schilke)

Cleaning up the detritus of houses destroyed in a Category 4 storm — ripping out insulation, pipes and wiring; tearing apart skeletal frameworks; removing sheet rock, bricks and fractured cement foundations; performing basic reconstruction projects — is decidedly not the sort of good time featured on any of those exotic vacation television programs.

And make no mistake, five members of Wheeler High School's Class of 2018 Gives Back Club are under no delusions they're embarking on a holiday. Still, on Thursday, when they head to Pearland, Texas, to pitch in and help ongoing rehab efforts after Hurricane Harvey, there's an element of excitement and celebration to the mission.

"We didn't ask for a few days off from school to go swimming," laughs Anna Hundt, a 17-year-old senior at Wheeler. "It's going to be a lot of outside work in the Texas sun. That's why we're going. But we'll also get a lot out of it, culturally and socially. It's going to be a fun experience."

Other Wheeler students participating are seniors Matt Mendolia, Chris Orr, Kevin Velez and Kelsey MarcAurele, and chaperoning the group will be Rebecca Schilke, a co-sponsor of Class of 2018 Gives Back and a reading specialist at both Wheeler middle and high schools.

The group flies from Boston to Houston and returns Nov. 14. They'll be working with volunteers from North Carolina-based Samaritan's Purse, an international, nonprofit evangelical disaster relief organization that will provide lodging and food for the Wheeler volunteers. Schilke says Samaritan's Purse, ranked by Forbes magazine as one of the top 25 charities in the U.S., will coordinate the Wheeler group's assignments and that the trip and work are secular.

"The idea is to help out, and this was a way to get us to an area that needs help," Schilke said.

More than 27,000 homes were destroyed by Harvey or the subsequent flooding. The Class of 2018 outfit originally was headed to Victoria, Texas, but relief response was so great there, they shifted their focus to Pearland, a community just south of Houston.

"We're glad to have done a lot of projects with this club," Mendolia said. "But to get to go to Texas is definitely a highlight. We can't say enough about our sponsors and the faculty and the Board of Education for letting us do this. And, truthfully, we live in a really supportive, passionate community."

The Class of 2018 Gives Back Club, which has 12 total members, was conceptualized three years ago by Wheeler class advisor Liz Cantelli, whose premise, Schilke says, was simple. "She said, 'Let's take kids in the same class who have the desire and simple focus to give back to people in the community or beyond in all sorts of ways. The idea was that club members would want a legacy of philanthropy, charity and kindness. And it worked. These are amazing, compassionate and caring kids."

Indeed, a representative list of projects over the course of the students' Wheeler matriculation would include a Halloween costume drive for children in the community; fundraisers for the American Cancer Society and United Cerebral Palsy Foundation of Connecticut; holiday cookie trays for the North Stonington Fire Department; providing gift cards for families in need; making and distributing appreciation baskets for area military veterans, and hosting appreciation lunches for a North Stonington community member selected for service to the schools.

In the past year, the group has broadened the geographical parameters of its efforts, collecting winter hats and mittens for needy children in Philadelphia and organizing a pajama drive for foster children in New York City.

The club's efforts come as no surprise to Wheeler Principal Kristen St. Germain, who says, "We're very excited that our 2018 Gives Back Club can extend its helping hands to the communities in Texas affected by the recent hurricanes. They've been giving back to various local organizations and (it's) a great group of dedicated students."

The club members don't seem to think of it in terms of accumulated accomplishments, but suggest the very nature of the organization is sort of self-perpetuating. They do a project, it feels good to do it, and so they do another one. There's something energizing and rewarding about it, they said.

In what was a very busy hurricane and tropical storm season, the Gives Back Club originally pitched an idea of going into the Caribbean after Irma passed through. "I thought it was a thoughtful and generous idea," Schilke says, "but there's no way the parents or school board was going to let me take their kids to Haiti or the Dominican Republic. And I get it."

The Houston area, though, was more realistic. And, after the project was approved by St. Germain and the school board, the students went to work raising money for air fare, van rental and the day-to-day expenses not provided by Samaritan's Purse. The target amount hasn't quite been reached and those interested in contributing can visit the group's GoFundeMe page, http://gofundme.com/wheelertxtrip, or drop off a check at the high school made out to the Wheeler High School Activities fund.

Hundt says that, while the Texas trip will be a sort of culmination of all their efforts, club members still are excited about their regular activities carrying them through till graduation in the spring. It's all been part of a remarkable voyage.

"We've all known each other since we were kids," Hundt said. "We've had the privilege of growing up together in a small town. It helps to know everyone here. It helps to know the members of the Board of Education. Everyone supports everyone else and I think these sort of things put life in perspective. We're all about to go our separate ways, so this is something we'll always take with us."

Schilke says she's just honored to have worked with them. "These students are compassionate, driven individuals who truly want to make a difference in the world, and we'll hear from them in the future. I couldn't be prouder of who they are and what they want to do."

r.koster@theday.com

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