While Fairfax County Public Schools requires all seniors complete service projects in order to graduate, one West Springfield High School student is putting much more than the required hours of work into her project.
Senior Rachel Cotton, 18, has spent months organizing and coordinating volunteer fairs, two of which were held April 11 and 18 at her high school and Irving Middle School.
“I enjoy volunteering, but I know a lot of my friends don’t know about the opportunities available to volunteer,” Cotton said. “The goal with the fair was to connect the organization in the community with the students.”
The teen said she got the idea for a volunteer fair from college fairs held in school to inform students about higher education opportunities.
Cotton recruited 10 organizations like Volunteer Fairfax, Habitat for Humanity, Forever Home Rescue Foundation and student-led GIVE (Growth and Inspiration through Volunteering and Education), which was founded by students at Robinson Secondary and Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.
With the first two fairs now completed, Cotton said she hopes momentum is in her favor and she will be able to keep the project going with another fair in May.
“It wasn’t very big,” she said of the first fair on April 11. “But I’m hoping for more people to come [now the word has spread].”
Students who attended the fairs were able to sign up as volunteers with some of the attending organizations.
“We were very pleased when we heard about Rachel’s fair,” said Volunteer Fairfax spokeswoman Jessica Hubbard. “We were made aware of it by a partner nonprofit that was invited to participate, but not able to accommodate youth volunteers. It is sometimes difficult to find nonprofits that can use youth volunteer support. We try to address this problem by compiling a Directory of Youth Service Opportunities, updated each summer, with nonprofits that can use youth volunteers.” Cotton’s Volunteer Fair, she said, is unique because it is high school student-run and high school student-geared.
Fairfax high school students are required to create and complete service projects through the school system’s Capstone program. While the requirements and execution of service projects varies from school-to-school, at West Springfield students must have their project approved, complete 10 hours of service and write a five- to seven-page paper on the topic of their community service. Papers were due in January. Service hours were due earlier this month.
“Kids do everything from volunteering with Wounded Warriors or in food pantries,” said government teacher Elizabeth Jackson-Pettine, who approved Cotton’s project. Food drives and volunteering to coach youth sports teams are among the more common projects, she said.
“It was quite ambitious when she decided to do it,” Jackson-Pettine said. Service hours are completed under the social studies curriculum. The written portion of the project is part of the English curriculum.
“[Rachel] is delightful. If I could clone her 300 times, I would,” said teacher Holli Wolter, who is Cotton’s English 12 Honors instructor and advisor on her Capstone project. “I felt kind of useless almost because she really took the bull by the horns... All I ever did really was I was ‘cc-ed’ on emails.”
Cotton is described by teachers as a quiet, always smiling, caring student who is friends with everyone. Despite her unassuming, non-braggy nature, Cotton’s efforts are drawing attention from other schools attempting to boost their volunteer efforts.
“She actually had a counselor from another school contact her to get information on how she did this; how she put it together because [the counselor] wants to emulate it there,” Wolter said.
Unlike many of her classmates, Cotton’s school service project is also a Girl Scouts project. Jackson-Pettine said it is not uncommon to see Boy or Girl Scout projects combined with school requirements, but the hours of volunteering and level of creativity are typically more intense in the Boy or Girl Scout projects.
Cotton, who joined Girl Scouts as a “brownie,” (about 12 years ago) is working on her Gold Award, the highest honor awarded to Girl Scout members, which is equivalent to the Boy Scouts’ Eagle rank.
“Gold projects in themselves are extremely rare among Girl Scouts. Less than 5 percent of Girl Scouts do them,” said Kelly Ayotte-Phelan, Cotton’s troop adviser with Troop 384. The number of scouts completing the Gold Award project varies year-to-year, she added. For the Gold Award project, scouts must submit a service project proposal, which is approved by a panel of registered Girl Scout officials. Projects must be sustainable, include a leadership element, have a wider impact on the community and include at least 80 hours of service.
“The girl has to do it herself. In Rachel’s case, that meant contacting all of the volunteer organizations, being at events, overseeing crowd control,” Ayotte-Phelan said. “It’s a great experience for them.”
Among Troop 384, four students are currently organizing Gold Award projects including Cotton, fellow West Springfield senior Jihye Han, and Lake Braddock Secondary School seniors Molly Smith and Ali Tapper. Each of the scouts’ projects included public outreach and education elements as well as volunteer hours.
“These girls are going to go out and do anything they want to do,” Ayotte-Phelan said. “You have to work very independently and you have to deal with adversity... It’s a big commitment, especially for your senior year of high school.”
Cotton said she is excited to see where her Volunteer Fairs take fellow students.
“Whenever I tell people, they’re like ‘Oh, what a great idea,’ especially the teens I talk to,” she said. “I just love seeing people enjoy helping out because their smiles are so great and it makes me feel great.”