The Academy of the Holy Angels’ representatives included Baylee-Rose Cooper of Saddle Brook, Ashanti DeLoach of Dumont, Ariana Layne of Upper Saddle River, Gian Lee of Englewood Cliffs, and Dylan Vonderhorst of Pearl River, New York. AHA Campus Minister Maryanne Miloscia led the group on this annual service trip.
AHA’s team worked at the Merrick Center with the Girls on the Rise program, which serves underprivileged girls. As their service trip drew to a close, the volunteers visited Capitol Hill to speak with lawmakers and advocate for the needs of families and children like those participating in Girls on the Rise.
Vonderhorst explained that Girls on the Rise gives at-risk children a chance to be kids.
“At home, their families struggle with financial problems and issues within the family, but, at this camp, the girls were able to learn how to manage their problems,” Vonderhorst said. “We played games with them and entertained them, as well as helped them learn new things.”
She said the volunteers engaged the girls in activities to help them channel negative emotions and learn to enjoy being part of a wider community.
“I think it is really important, not only to offer temporary aid to those in need, but also to work to change the struggles that they are facing,” Vonderhorst added. “By advocating for these groups, we can understand more about how we can bring justice to them.”
Vonderhorst said the girls being served by the program live in a food desert (a neighborhood that lacks ready access to markets that sell healthy foods).
“The things that some of the girls had told me casually like it was normal had shocked me,” Vonderhorst continued. “Things that they find normal I had never even thought about, and I didn't realize that children this young had to deal with problems like these.”
Lee was similarly impressed by the experience.
“I was exposed to a new environment where many people are at risk. Before this, I did not really think that there were places like this,” Lee noted.
She explained that the children did not seem to have good home lives or education, and many have been exposed to dangerous situations.
“Despite all of the things they were going through, at the Girls on the Rise Program they were all very positive and happy,” Lee added. “They loved it whenever they got attention from the volunteers because some of them did not get a lot of attention at home.”
Forming bonds with the girls was a highlight for Lee. One bonding experience involved working with the girls to build mini-robots using just a toothbrush, wires, and a battery.
“One wire went on top of the battery, and the other went under the battery, and the battery started to vibrate. Next, we attached it to the toothbrush and the toothbrush started to move around. It was a great experience for everyone because it was a great way to be hands-on through education, and all the girls had so much fun. They also got to take their robots home and feel proud of their accomplishments,” Lee said.
Layne was drawn to this program because she enjoys helping others and spending time with children. She described her experience as rewarding and fun.
“I learned that it is important to appreciate everything we have and that you should always try to find the positive aspects in every situation like the girls did there. They always came in with a smile on their faces despite the hardships they were facing at home,” Layne reflected.