Stanwood teacher, students Make A Difference, win $10K for nonprofit

STANWOOD — A school project that turned teens’ attention from their classroom routines to their community’s needs won a teacher and her English students $10,000 to help a local nonprofit.

Val Schroeder’s three English classes at Stanwood High School participated in national Make A Difference Day in October. They were selected earlier this month as one of the top 14 projects in the country.

Students cleaned up local parks and beaches, helped at a senior center downtown, raised money for the food bank and animal shelter and taught younger students about agriculture. Others built birdhouses, planted trees or collected blankets, clothes, food and toiletries to help homeless people.

The 84 high school seniors completed 35 projects. Most worked in groups of two or three.

“If you do something small it can still help, even if it’s just a little bit,” said Emily Fogarty, who raised money to buy cat food for the NOAH Center. “It’s important to give back, especially because we’re such a small community.”

Make A Difference Day is an assignment Schroeder has given students for several years, she said. They choose their own projects and write proposals. It’s part of a national program started by USA TODAY and the Gannett Co. to encourage people to serve in their hometowns. The Newman’s Own company pays prizes that winners can award to a nonprofit they of their choice.

Schroeder submitted her students’ projects for the first time this year but didn’t expect to win the prize.

“The whole concept of Make A Difference Day is that it’s local people helping local projects,” Schroeder said. “The whole thing has been such a cool learning experience.”

The students were involved in deciding which local nonprofit would get the $10,000. Schroeder turned that into a learning opportunity. She asked the students to write grant proposals and memos and then vote amongst themselves to decide the award.

The students chose the Whidbey Camano Land Trust’s Barnum Point project. Barnum Point, along Port Susan on the east side of Camano Island, is an area that the trust has been working for years to preserve. The organization is raising money to buy more land.

Many students voted for the trust because their projects focused on cleaning up and protecting parks, beaches and lakes.

Zachariah Whittlesey picked up trash at Church Creek and Heritage parks in Stanwood. Denali Smith and Aaron Maritz cleaned up litter at Utsalady Beach and Iverson Spit. Tayler Haury picked up garbage at Big Ditch, a popular hangout. Shania Stang cleaned up around Lost Lake.

“Whenever I go down there I see all the garbage, so I thought it would be good to clean it up,” Stang said. “Sometimes you have to get out and do stuff to help the community.”

The service aspect of the assignment made it different from other schoolwork.

“We don’t usually do community things,” Kate Holm said. “We usually do stuff for Stanwood High School and this time we did something for the town.”

Holm and Tia Kennedy collected cans and classmate Collin Haag sold cookies to raise money for the Stanwood Food Bank.

Drew Carlson taught fifth-graders about farming. He wants to teach agriculture someday, so it was good practice.

Schroeder wanted her students to get a chance at writing business documents. The writing was only part of the lesson.

“No matter how small the deed you do, it makes a difference,” Dylan Weeda said.

Weeda worked with Jessica Fuentes and Ashley Koster to weed and pick tomatoes for an elderly couple. They were surprised by how something so simple could mean so much to the couple.

Javier Rodrigez and Trent Bender cleaned and moved boxes at Josephine, a long-term care and senior center. Kevin Rhoden mowed, edged, raked leaves and trimmed shrubs at the senior center. Michael Richardson decided to help closer to home and pressure washed his grandma’s house, while Cooper Lindner picked up garbage in his neighborhood.

Taran Brewer, who built a bird house for the Camano Animal Shelter Association, thinks everyone should volunteer in some way. The $10,000 grant is an exciting surprise, but actions are as important as donations.

“Just get out in your community,” said Haury, the student who cleaned up Big Ditch. “Go do something, regardless of if it’s Make A Difference Day or not.”

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439;

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