New varsity letters stress community, not competition

  • Tue Jul 3rd, 2012 6:07pm
  • News

By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist

It’s a piece of Americana, a high school emblem pictured in yearbooks and worn by Richie Cunningham in “Happy Days.”

The varsity letter has long been a symbol of student achievement. For generations, letters have been badges of honor for athletes.

Now, thanks to a new United Way of Snohomish County program, teens in the Everett district’s high schools have a chance to earn a letter for helping others. Snohomish High School also has signed on.

The Varsity Letter in Community Service will recognize students who complete at least 145 hours of volunteer work per year. Those hours can’t include time spent on class work or other graduation requirements.

Letters, traditionally made of felt and chenille, will first be awarded for community service next spring. For each high school, letters will look the same as those earned for football, music or other activities.

Volunteer hours will be verified by United Way of Snohomish County, said Neil Parekh, the agency’s vice president of marketing and communications. The first year will cover service completed between May 1 of this year and April 30, 2013.

“Here’s an opportunity for bringing more students into this honor system,” said Gary Cohn, superintendent of the Everett School District and a member of the local United Way’s board of directors. “Many of our district’s high school students commit their time and energy to a variety of projects that improve our community, and we believe they should be rewarded for their work,” Cohn said.

The Varsity Letter in Community Service got its start in 2001 in Pierce County.

United Way of Pierce County was first in the nation with the program. Bethany Opstedal, a senior Youth United associate with the Tacoma-based agency, said that in 2001 only a handful of schools nationwide were giving letters for volunteer service. “We brought a committee together and set guidelines based on the amount of time an average athlete was putting in,” Opstedal said.

Today, the letter program is in place at United Way of Chelan &Douglas Counties, at a United Way in Michigan and at some individual schools. “I’m excited for Snohomish County. There are so many students who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to earn a varsity letter,” Opstedal said.

Letters are available to students in ninth through 12th grades. “They get their school’s letter, and the first year a little scroll patch that says, ‘Community Service.’ Subsequent years, they get a bar,” Opstedal said.

Parekh said our United Way is “standing on the shoulders” of work done in Pierce County, where 554 students received community service letters in May.

Robert Polk, the Everett School District’s director of athletics and activities, said letters are awarded for athletics, participation in music, drama, clubs and leadership, depending on the school.

“Letters have been part of our schools for many generations. Obviously, it’s a point of pride for many people,” Polk said. “The letter is a symbol that shows representation of the school in the community. With service, it goes a step further, showing how kids are giving back.”

Students will be required to document volunteer hours, and United Way will verify those records. “The bar is high; 145 hours is not something to scoff at,” Parekh said. Fifty hours of the service must be outside anything related to the schools.

Jay Brower, community connections director for Bethel School District in Pierce County, said many athletes in his district also have earned volunteer letters. “We love sports and we love music, but we also love the idea that we are turning out citizens who are service-minded,” he said.

Here, 18-year-old Ivan Simon is a new graduate of Everett High School. With United Way’s Youth United program, he has volunteered to clean up Depot Park near the Everett waterfront. He also helped with a Union Slough wetlands project.

“If this had existed when I was in high school, it would have drawn me in,” said Simon, who’ll start at Western Washington University in the fall.

“It’s to honor those kids who do more than go to class every day,” Polk said. “There are so many unsung heroes, kids who are highly involved in church groups and other organizations. It’s a great thing to recognize.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460,

New varsity letter

Students from Jackson, Cascade, Everett and Snohomish high schools will be eligible for a varsity letter in Community Service, a new program of United Way of Snohomish County, by completing 145 hours of community service and meeting other criteria. Information: or contact Amy Franklin at or 425-374-5526.