VUHS seniors go the distance for charity

MIDDLEBURY — As juniors at Vergennes Union High School spent three days last week taking NECAP standardized tests, and younger peers ventured off campus to visit colleges and explore careers with local businesses, VUHS seniors were acing what has become known within the school as “Assessment Week.”
For their part, seniors for the third straight year were testing their sense of community and charity — and by most accounts they were getting the highest of marks.
The 88 members of the Class of 2011 raised about $5,000 in pledges for its annual three-day walkathon from VUHS to Porter Medical Center in Middlebury — some 14 miles away — bringing the three-year total to around $14,000.
This year the class donated $1,500 to the Helen Porter Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center in honor of the 15 military veterans who live in the nursing home. The remainder of the pledges will be split among three local families — those of Vergennes Union Elementary School students and cancer patients Ellie Martin and Rosalea Hearthstone, and of VUHS student Alex Coyle, who was seriously injured in an Oct. 2 fall from a horse.
Members of the class said there were many good reasons to follow in the footsteps of their older peers. Emily Pelsue said the seniors are rewarded, as well as the young patients and their families.
“It’s really gratifying to help other people,” Pelsue said. “And … if I were in a situation like that it would feel really, really nice to have everybody doing everything they possibly could to help.”
The class presented the checks on Thursday morning to Porter officials and to Martin’s and Hearthstone’s families in a hospital dining room; Coyle’s family was not then aware the donation was on the way.
Senior Asa Hunt said afterward his classmates’ experience in planning, fund-raising, completing the walk and watching the ceremony would make a lasting impact.
“What I got out of it was that it’s just a good thing to help people, and you can make a difference, even if it’s a little one,” Hunt said. “As classmates, I think people realized what I realized, that they can make a difference if they just try.”
Hunt said seniors discussed donating money to a wider cause, but kept coming back to their local roots.
“Sending money to Haiti would be a good thing, too, but we wouldn’t be able to see as much of a difference,” he said.
Pelsue herself made a remarkable contribution: $1,080 in pledges for her 14 miles of walking.
“My family knows a lot of people, and I kind of made it a competition with myself to get as much money as I possibly could,” Pelsue said.
VUHS special educator Lee Shorey, who co-coordinates the school’s volunteer programs with social studies teacher Roberta “Cookie” Steponaitis, credited senior Ryan Putnam for his efforts in getting his classmates to support veterans. Putnam brought up the subject more than a year ago and put the wheels in motion.
“He said, ‘When I’m a senior, on the walkathon, how can I get the class to walk for veterans?’” Shorey said. “He addressed the class, and he wrote (to) Porter.”
Porter remains a logical choice for each senior class, she said.
“The important thing is how much this hospital does for all of us,” Shorey said. “It just makes so much sense bringing them a gift the way we do every year.”
In 2008, Porter received a check for equipment to better detect breast cancer, and 2009’s went toward an intensive workshop for families with diabetes patients; that gift was made in memory of seniors’ late classmate Taylor Vigne, who was a diabetes patient.
The donation to Helen Porter will be used toward what Porter officials called its “culture change”; they said they have been working toward making the facility more home-like for its 96 residents.
Helen Porter Assistant Director Jim Darragh said on Thursday morning that as a veteran and a VUHS graduate he appreciated the seniors’ efforts.
“It’s very special you have chosen that group of people to honor, and we’ll be able to put those funds to good use,” Darragh said.
Steponaitis addressed the young cancer patients and their families on behalf of the seniors.
“We can’t fight your cancer for you. We can’t take on your burden, but we can let you know that you are not alone, that these 88 people here and all that they represent are behind you,” she said, adding, “You have 88 new friends.”
Steponaitis also urged the seniors to remember the lessons of the walkathon.
“What kind of community members are you going to be?” she asked. “When you leave us in June … be felt in the communities you move to. Be a part of positive change. Offer your hand, offer your heart, help.”
At least, Shorey said, it looks like the senior walkathon is here to stay.
“You have freshmen saying, ‘You know what we want to do when we walk when we’re seniors?’” Shorey observed.
The current seniors agree.
“The past two senior classes have been doing the walking, so I think we wanted to,” Pelsue said. “I think it will be made a tradition for the senior class.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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