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Caring for the Community

Two Woodson students recognized for commitment to volunteering.

Even though the hours spent on homework, classes, athletic practices and club meetings may seem endless, many high-school students find time to perform community service. But a few somehow manage to devote dozens, if not hundreds, of hours to a cause or a community they strongly support.

Two such examples are certain W.T. Woodson High School students who were recently recognized for their commitment to the larger community. Sophomore Alexis Kuiper of Fairfax received national recognition by winning the Girl Scouts' Ethel G. Harvey Award and the Prudential Spirit of Community Award.

The Ethel G. Harvey Award is awarded to a Girl Scout annually for community service. The Prudential Spirit of Community Award is given to 50 high-schoolers and 50 middle-schoolers nationally.

Jessica Honan of Fairfax was recognized as a Distinguished Finalist for the Prudential Spirit of Community Award. She will also receive the Congressional Gold Medal for Volunteer Service, which is given only to 20 high-school seniors nationally.

"We are very proud of them and the fact that they would take that type of interest in the community," said Woodson assistant principal Holly Messinger.

ALEXIS KUIPER'S eyes opened to community service after her father survived the attack on the Pentagon during 9/11.

"It made me realize how fragile life was," said the Woodson sophomore, "how you should seize the day."

As a result, Alexis initiated several volunteer projects through the Girl Scouts, with the hope that other Scouts would also start to create projects to help the community.

"Ultimately, community service has deepened my respect for the community and has inspired me to do more," Alexis said.

One project was called "Foundations," in which Alexis collected books, toys, clothing, computers and other items for the Parklawn Family Center, an Alexandria-based organization that helps immigrant families.

"She has been a gift to the Parklawn Family Center," said Harriet Sava of Parklawn, in an e-mail. "Through her efforts ... we have been able to give newly immigrated families with young and school-aged children these items."

Alexis then organized a day-long career and education conference for area Girl and Boy Scouts on the environment, because she wanted young people to be inspired to go into the science and technology fields.

"The expo's goal was to connect young girls with conservation organizations, so that the girls can learn more about conservation and science careers," Alexis said.

Called the "Discovery Conservation Expo," the event, which took place last March at McLean Bible Church, brought together 50 different organizations and about 400 Girl Scouts from across the region. Over 700 people participated in the expo, either as attendees, facilitators or organizers.

"That was really the key, making the connections between the girls, the organizations and the leaders," said Alexis.

Organizing the expo earned Alexis national recognition from the Girl Scouts, who gave her the Ethel G. Harvey Award for community service last fall.

"She was just so enthusiastic and so knowledgeable," said Carol Bennett, an adviser for Girl Scouts at the cadet, or middle-school, level. Bennett helped Alexis achieve the Gold Award, which is analogous to Eagle Scout.

Bennett met Alexis almost two years ago, when Alexis was talking to the younger Girl Scouts about her volunteer project. Bennett was impressed with Alexis' strategic and long-term sensibility.

"I truly think Alexis is the most together teenager I have ever known," Bennett said.

Alexis' collective volunteer efforts earned her the 2004 Prudential Spirit of Community Award. One of two in Virginia to receive the award, she will be recognized along with other national recipients in May. More than 20,000 middle- and high-schoolers applied for the award this year.

But even as Alexis awaits the ceremony, she hasn't stopped volunteering. She applied to work with scientists with the environmental organization Earthwatch, and she received a grant from State Farm Insurance to plan a courtyard cleanup and create a garden at Woodson, with the help of the school's environmental club and the Girl Scouts. Alexis also is on the varsity crew team and is a page for the literary club.

"I think I'm going to keep my options open and see what else I can do to help others," Alexis said.

LIKE ALEXIS, Jessica Honan's father was in the Pentagon when terrorists flew a plane into it in September 2001. The uncertainty she and her family felt when they were waiting to see if their father lived strengthened her resolve to work with families who experience like feelings.

She found her place as a volunteer for Glories Happy Hats, a group that makes hats for sick and terminally ill children.

"I can kind of relate to how the families must feel," Jessica said. "That's what the hats are, they're hope."

For the past three years, Jessica has designed and sewn hats for children who have cancer. With Happy Hats, she travels to oncology wards at Inova Fairfax Hospital and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to give the hats to children.

As president of Woodson's Key Club, she has gotten other students involved as well in making the gifts for the children.

"The people at school totally enjoy it," Jessica said.

Jessica can't forget how children's faces lit up when she first visited the oncology ward. The children would start rummaging through the buckets of hats. Some would start telling her about how they wanted to be a firefighter or a ballet dancer when they grew up.

"They're in the hospital rooms, and it's really scary," Jessica said. "The kids were just so excited to have visitors."

The nurses would tell Jessica that some of the children would sleep in their hats at night, so they could have sweet dreams.

"It seems like such a simple thing, but it's so important," Jessica said.

Jessica's efforts with Happy Hats earned her recognition as Distinguished Finalist by the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards. Jessica is one of six in the state to receive the distinction.

"She understands why volunteering is important. She understands why it's important to the community and to herself," said Susan Khorsand of Glories Happy Hats.

Khorsand explained that Happy Hats is a youth-driven project, in which youths must organize and create their own assembly lines of creating hats, with the goal that every hospitalized child receives a hat made by another child.

"She has the organizational capacity to man an assembly line of 200 youths for two hours," said Khorsand. "This is a tremendous amount of organizational leadership capacity."

Jessica's community service also earned her the Congressional Gold Medal for Volunteer Service. Given to 20 high-school seniors nationally, it honors students who have over 400 hours of community service. Jessica had already achieved the certificate, bronze and silver levels.

When Jessica is not volunteering for Happy Hats, she organizes community service projects as president of Woodson's Key Club. A National Honor Society member, Jessica is also a member of the Spanish, Art and History honor societies. She has participated in Habitat for Humanity and the Light the Night Walk for Leukemia. She plays soccer and varsity tennis, and won first place in the state science fair in 2001.