“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
These words by the late Margaret Mead, an American anthropologist and educator who wrote about social relationships, are fitting for Tanni Wenger’s Senior Team — a group of high school seniors coming together to help the community.
Wenger, a Grant County native who snaps portraits of the county’s graduating seniors each year, said the motivation behind creating the first Senior Team last year was to bring the students together in their final year of high school to make memories and give back to their community.
This year, Wenger said 18 Grant County seniors joined the team, and Parker Manitsas, Quinten Hallgarth, Peyton Neault, Madison Spencer, Quaid Brandon, Abby Lusco and Caitlin Willet were the most active participants who completed each community service project.
Wenger’s Senior Team program kicks off at the start of the school year. She said the team collectively decides on a community project.
COVID-19 brought unforeseen challenges this year. Wenger said the group decided to deliver food, prepare firewood and take care of miscellaneous chores for Grant County’s senior citizens, arguably the most vulnerable demographic this year.
Beyond the opportunity to apply for a small scholarship sponsored by Wenger for following through on their year-long commitment — Hallgarth received $200, and Willet received $100 — the seniors said they volunteered because Wenger asked them to step up.
Hallgarth, who broke his leg earlier this year, showed up to the Elks Lodge to deliver food twice and stacked wood once he was out of his cast and in a boot. He said volunteering with a broken leg while in considerable pain was a simple, quick decision.
“I said I would do it,” he said. “I gave my word.”
Wenger said the students committed a few hours each week, which they balanced with their classes, sports and other extracurricular activities and responsibilities.
“Doing just a few hours of work has made life easier for so many of these people in our community,” she said. “I think my seniors really got to witness this with some of our projects.”
Hallgarth concurred. He said, for the senior citizens they served, the students were likely the only social interaction they had during the pandemic.
Breaking out, bonding and realizing what matters
In addition to community projects, Wenger said the seniors participate in themed photo shoots. She said the themes included Fourth of July, hunting, boho at the Painted Hills, pumpkin patch, sledding, Valentine’s Day, prom and cap and gown. The “thrift shop” theme, she said, turned out to be the most popular shoot of the year.
Brandon and Hallgarth agreed. Hallgarth said Wenger purchased bags of hand-me-down clothes from a thrift store in John Day. He said the group posed for photos in outfits chosen by a teammate who drew their name from a hat.
Madison Spencer said her 1980s-style solid striped polo shirt and khakis made her look like a golfer. Peyton Neault, in a button-up collared shirt, laughingly said he looked like a little kid dressed up for a family reunion in his brand new school clothes.
Along with experiencing the gratification that comes when helping others, the group said they cultivated lasting friendships — in part — by getting out of their comfort zones.
“I’m usually more of a stay-at-home person, so when I did go out I saw their personalities and how they saw the world,” Spencer said.
She said she had never talked to Brandon. But she said now when she sees him she says, “what’s up.”
“All of the groups started to mesh together,” Spencer said.
Hallgarth said at beginning of the year they all had their own social circles, but the more they worked together the more they started hanging out together as the year progressed.
“I bonded with a lot of my classmates a lot more than I ever had before,” Hallgarth said.
Neault said incoming seniors would not regret a service position should they be on the fence about making the commitment.
“It’s the best feeling in the world when you help someone out,” he said. “If they truly appreciate it and have a smile on their face, it is better than anything you could ever do in your life.”
Mead, the anthropologist who also said, “The solution to adult problems tomorrow depends on large measure upon how our children grow up today,” would likely approve.
“I think a lot of us found that with helping older people or whoever,” Spencer said, “that you tend to find out that the smaller things matter the most.”