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Volunteer program moves into classroom

By Sarah L. Smith
Coastal Observer

Service Over Self, the nonprofit community service group, is now in the classroom, with a leadership class at Waccamaw Middle School.

A school mentoring program will follow this fall.

The nonprofit’s director, Yolanda McCray, teaches the daily class for seventh- and eighth-graders.

“We learn how to be leaders,” said Allie Heavner, a seventh-grader. “I’m learning how to be a good person.”

Students answer daily questions in their journals and read three texts: “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens,” by Sean Covey, “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson and “Positive Action,” a book published by Safe and Drug-Free Schools.

Their vocabulary words include “principle” and “paradigm,” and they discuss how they can be leaders in their own lives.

Last week, they read the children’s book, “The Little Engine that Could,” by Watty Piper.

Gray Williams, an eighth-grader, said McCray guided the discussion about the book’s deeper meanings, and how students could apply those lessons to their lives.

During those discussions, students know the classroom is a safe-environment, McCray said, so students can talk about their problems, how to handle different situations, and get advice from their peers without feeling embarrassed or worried about information leaving the room.

“It allows them to open up and express themselves,” McCray said.

As students take a look at their own values and how they live their lives, McCray is also encouraging them to dress and act professionally. Each month, students will get a chance to wear what they think is a professional outfit to class and receive constructive criticism from their peers.

“The reason that I’m doing it is that it’s taking them out of their comfort zone,” McCray said. “Good leaders make those decisions to want to stand out, and it’s the whole thing about standing out instead of trying to fit it that I want to reinforce.”

She tells them, “instead of trying to blend in with everybody else, why not stand out?”

It also prepares them for future interviews where cut-off jeans and T-shirts would not be acceptable dress.

“Even if they are doctors and have to wear scrubs and a lab coat, it’s still not jeans and a T-shirt,” McCray said.

The class is just one part of the nonprofit’s rebranding efforts.

In the past, McCray said, SOS was known for one activity: community volunteering.

Established in 1996, members have volunteered in Special Olympics, Red Cross blood drives, the Salvation Army’s Christmas kettle campaign and more.

By the end of each year, about 250 members have donated approximately 7,000 service hours.

Now, McCray and board members added a new goal for the organization: academic and personal excellence.

To meet that goal, SOS plans to establish a reading and tutoring area in its office where older SOS students tutor the younger. It will also start a pilot youth empowerment initiative in October for sixth- and ninth-graders.

“They’ll go through leadership classes, and we’ll seek tutors for them and there will also be a mentoring avenue from our older kids,” McCray said.

The nonprofit chose sixth- and ninth-graders because they are adjusting to a new school environment, with the exception of sixth-graders at Waccamaw Intermediate, and may need additional academic support.

“If they start off strong at the middle school, they’ll finish off strong; and, if they start off strong at high school, they’ll finish off strong there,” she said.

If the program is successful, SOS plans to look at taking it to other grade levels.

McCray said the nonprofit will continue to collaborate with Georgetown County School District, but it will also partner with myTerms, a Pawleys Island nonprofit geared toward empowering girls and young women, and start to work with the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge.

Partnering with other nonprofits will help make the SOS name more widespread in Georgetown County, McCray believes.

“I want people to say, ‘oh, SOS, we see them cleaning up trash on the side of the road,’ ” she said.

But she also wants people to see SOS students and know they are leaders.

That’s why collaborating with other nonprofits is important, McCray said. By working with other community groups, more people will learn about SOS and want to get involved.

To learn more about SOS or to fill out an application for youth membership, call the SOS office at 436-7188 or go to sosyouthvolunteers.org. This school year, about 300 Georgetown County students are participating.

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