When parent Debra Schulle-Hess needed help with Stratford Landing Elementary School’s Care and Share Christmas Collection, she called on the people she knew she could count on — a group of 12-year-old boys. One of them was her son, Dustin; the others were friends of her son and boys whom she had worked with at the school.
They spent several days packaging up gifts for needy families. It wasn’t until near the end of the process that some of the boys realized that they were not only on the giving end, but as recipients of some of the gifts, their families were also on the receiving end.
Schulle-Hess said that one of the boys was so overwhelmed with the generosity that he turned to her with tears in his eyes, and said, "I can’t believe this."
She was not upset that he realized this; on the contrary she thought it was good for him to see where it came from. Spurred on partly by this realization and partly by the need for the sixth-grade boys to do community service, she decided to take it one step further.
Schulle-Hess had another reason for wanting to do something. After coming into the school for a few years to work with some of these boys, she had seen as they grew older that they were starting to get into "things;" some had even been approached by gangs.
“Our goal is to provide the boys with a method of belonging to something other than gangs,” she said.
With the help of Wyley Neal and Paige MacLeod, she created an organization called the Mount Vernon Boys Partnership. Flyers were sent home stating, “The Mount Vernon Boys Partnership is looking for motivated, energetic, good-hearted young men who want to make a difference (between the ages of 10 to 14) to join as members. Our mission is to support folks in need by supporting other organizations that work right here in our community. Rising Hope, a Christian and civic organization in Alexandria is in need of ‘Boy Power’ right now. By becoming a member, you can directly make a difference in our community by sorting and distributing food that will be shared with local families, helping with odd jobs and participating in many other activities.”
To join, the boys had to be willing to work as part of a team and follow instructions; perform light physical labor when required; participate with a mature and helpful attitude; and have their parents’ permission to join. The commitment was one weekday evening and/or one weekend morning or afternoon per month. Their community service hours would be logged for each member and can be applied to credits for middle school requirements.
SEVERAL BOYS RESPONDED and they held their first meeting last March. Because of Neal’s affiliation with Rising Hope United Methodist Church, they used that as their first service project. One of the things they worked on was helping to organize the Food Bank.
Schulle-Hess said that the boys spent about 4 hours tackling a room full of food, sorting and disposing of outdated items.
“They did so much in so little time,” she said. “I wake up and pinch myself — it’s going so well.”
In addition to working with Rising Hope, the boys have worked on several other community service projects. When they realized that Rising Hopes’ Food Bank was getting low, the boys sponsored a food drive and collected 75 bags.
“That’s a lot of food,” Schulle-Hess said.
Neal also feels that it’s been very successful, and said, “It’s been a very positive project and gone very well in terms of the kids’ involvement. We’re there to provide an understanding of the real world.”
Schulle-Hess said that many of the boys had been Scouts; they had grown tired of attending meetings but still wanted to do community service.
“The kids find it exciting; they just wanted to do community service,” Neal said.
Dennis Rice, who was in the group last year and is hoping to join again, said, “I like it because I was helping people.”
Phillip McNeill, a junior at West Potomac, was asked to join the group as a mentor. He enjoys the role he has played and said, "I wanted to help homeless people by donating food and clothes and I wanted kids to look up to me. I encourage kids to join because it's good to help people who don't have all that we have."