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Teens Spend Summer Helping Others

Teenagers perform community service projects through Reston YMCA program.

Most of Curtis Keys' friends are spending their summer watching television, hanging out around Reston and generally trying to relax as much as possible before starting high school in the fall.

Keys, on the other hand, has been brightening the day of children stricken with cancer, serving soup at homeless shelters and cleaning up the Northern Virginia Ronald McDonald House.

"I like giving back to my community," said the 14-year-old Reston resident. "I like helping people out."

Keys is one of almost 100 teenagers primarily from Reston, Herndon and Loudoun County participating this year in the Reston YMCA's Summer of Service program.

The program, in its third year, takes rising 6th, 7th and 8th grade students throughout the region to perform community service projects.

By helping sick children, homeless families and others, the teenagers are learning how small acts of charity can help make the community a better place, said Arlinda Louh, the YMCA's director of youth and family programs.

"It teaches these kids to be caring, honest, respectful and responsible," Louh said. "And they're showing that teens aren't just people's stereotypical idea of teenagers. They go and spend their summer serving others."

Apart from cleaning the Ronald McDonald House and serving food at the D.C. Central Kitchen, the teenagers pick up litter at parks and natural areas, perform skits at area nursing homes, and deliver food from Claggett Farms, a Maryland farm that prepares produce for homeless shelters.

"We want them to experience personal growth and to realize they can make a difference," Louh said.

LAST THURSDAY, the teenagers entertained cancer patients in the children's unit of the Inova Fairfax Hospital's oncology department with singing, dancing, skits and gymnastics.

The talent show, held in a toy-filled courtyard on the hospital's fifth floor off the children's ward, was held before the patients were given toys and drawing supplies the teenagers had collected over the last several weeks.

"It's really touching to see what these kids have to go through," Keys said.

Talya Vikram, a Herndon resident participating in the Summer of Service, said helping the children with cancer was an eye-opening and heart-breaking experience.

"Some of these people don't have a lot of time left," she said. "Every minute you spend with them counts."

Vikram has participated in the Summer of Service for the past two years. It has caused her to decide, she said, that community service should be always play a fundamental role in her life.

"You get a good feeling out of helping other people," Vikram said.

The camp's director, Joshua Gravis, said it is admirable to see teenagers devoting their free time brightening the days of the sick and the elderly.

Later in the summer, the camp will focus more on cleaning up the environment, he said.

"These kids work hard," Gravis said.

THE SUMMER of Service program is offered at six other YMCAs in Virginia and Maryland. Because of its popularity, it is being expanded at YMCAs across the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area this summer, Louh said.

"It's the experience of a lifetime for a lot of these kids," she said.

Part of the allure, Louh said, is that middle and high schools are increasingly requiring community service before graduation. A program like Summer of Service allows the teenagers to find interesting service opportunities and exposes them the greater issues facing the community — challenges such as poverty, sickness and pollution.

But the teens who enroll in the program are motivated by more than school requirements, Louh said. The typical camper in Summer of Service has a deep caring of the community and a desire to make the world a better place a little bit at a time, she said.

"Most kids look at community service and say 'Eww, I don't want to do that,'" Louh said. "But these kids go out there and want to help."