Key Peninsula Middle School student Kaitlin Hall helps Jessica Smeall, Key Pen Parks recreation coordinator, recruit new “PAL” members to sign up for last month’s Park Appreciation Day. Photo by Scott Turner, KP News

It started last fall, when Jessica Smeall, recreation coordinator for Key Pen Parks, needed volunteers to help with the annual Harvest Festival.

“We needed help with the hayride, so I went to the middle school,” Smeall said. “I just asked the kids if they could help, and our sign-up table was rushed by students who wanted to be part of it.”

That was before the program that’s now called “Park PALS” even had an official name. It stands for “people who all love to serve.”

“The response was just overwhelming,” Smeall said. “The kids were especially excited about doing something they could dress up for and have fun, and also be giving service to the community.”

After the success of the hayride, the PALS group went to work on another big Key Pen Parks event –– the annual Breakfast with Santa. “The kids became the elves and they directed people to tables and helped with the crafts,” Smeall said.

In April, PALS helped judge the costume contest and handed out eggs at the annual Pet Easter Egg Hunt, “… and they even got to make some of the announcements,” she said.

Smeall and her co-workers now realize that the PALS program serves a dual purpose.

“We have a real need for more people at the events, just being there as event support. But also, the middle school age group needs things to be doing as well. “This program kind of fills that gap for those three years while they’re in middle school. It also gives them a chance to have a lot of responsibility.”

According to Smeall, about 40 kids have participated in the program so far.

“The school staff loves it. They’re just over the moon with what this has done with their kids. There was really nothing like it before,” she said.

One of the major benefits of this type of youthful volunteerism –– which Smeall calls “service learning” –– is that it’s not just about volunteering.

“It’s getting the kids to really see the difference they make, that they’re doing something in the community,” she said. “They’re also learning to organize themselves into action groups and analyze how things are working.

Jeri Goebel, Key Peninsula Middle School principal, agreed. “It’s amazing how much leadership it’s building with our students.

“I was surprised with how much the students really want to give back to the community at that age. They’re just really excited to help the community and help other kids. Jessica has found niches for the kids that don’t involve sports or other activities. I think it’s amazing,” Goebel said.

One of Smeall’s regular PALS volunteers is 11-year-old Kaitlin Hall, a KPMS sixth-grader.

“She was the very first one to run up to my table and say ‘I want to help,’” Smeall said. “And after the first event she made a commitment to help at every event –– and she’s been at every one since then.”

Hall said she signed up because she thought it sounded “pretty cool, and I thought it would be really fun.

“We’re entertaining people, letting other people have fun, and we’re volunteering and helping people. I guess you could say we’re helping people be happier,” Hall said.

Hall said the program has also made a difference in the way she communicates with people.

“I used to get nervous talking to people, but in these events we talk to people a lot and this just has really helped me communicate better,” she said.

For information, call (253) 884-9240.

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