A Publication of WTVP

The lesson of community service

by Katie Faley | Photo by Ron Johnson |
Students and staff from Reservoir Gifted Academy volunteer
Students and staff from Reservoir Gifted Academy volunteer their class time to work bagging pet food for the Critter Meals on Wheels program at Neighborhood House

At Reservoir Gifted Academy in Peoria, students help others … and themselves

The last two weeks of September were a marathon for the families of Reservoir Gifted Academy (formerly Washington Gifted). A marathon of raising funds and giving back, that is.

The Help-A-Thon, as it’s aptly named, was established by Reservoir’s Parent Teacher Organization. For two weeks, students and their families raise funds to support initiatives of the PTO. The event consists of three blocks: work, service, and fun.

Starting with the work

Students reached out to friends, family, family friends, friends’ family and even strangers to help support the cause. In exchange, students committed to give back their time in the form of service hours to a local non-profit.

‘students were all randomly assigned to their service location. So, you were with a group of kids that maybe you wouldn’t normally mix with’
— Principal Susan Martin

“A portion of the funds go toward PTO initiatives and events for the students, their families and the staff,” said Mary Beth Cunningham, one of the PTO parents involved in Help-A-Thon planning.

Staff and parents can suggest ideas for how PTO funds should support the school community. Some projects are school-wide, and some are one classroom at a time.

With the extra funds, Reservoir Principal Susan Martin can’t wait to add a new classroom.


“I’ve been dreaming of an outdoor classroom for a long time,” she said of the opportunity to provide a variety of immersive, hands-on learning experiences for students. Studies have shown that outdoor education also increases focus, improves mental health and enhances academic performance.

Service at its core

At the end of the two-week fundraising marathon, students got to work making good on their commitment to put in service hours to the community.

Students showed up to school as normal. But instead of going to class, they were bused in groups to 20 different non-profit locations throughout the city.

“We had 292 students going out to non-profits and giving back. That means we were able to give 430 hours of service to our neighbors,” said Jessica Heintz, another parent behind the event.

Students helped out at places such as Neighborhood House, Sophia’s Kitchen, Peoria Zoo, Dream Center, Illinois Cancer Care, Peoria Fire Department, Ronald McDonald House and many others.

“The cool thing is that the students were all randomly assigned to their service location. So, you were with a group of kids that maybe you wouldn’t normally mix with,” Principal Martin said.

Students completed tasks that ranged from sorting and hanging up clothes for people needing something nice to wear to a job interview to writing messages of hope and joy on food bags that will help feed people facing food insecurity.

At Neighborhood House, students filled bags of pet food for the Critter Meals on Wheels program.

“We found that people shared their meals with their pets. Obviously, you love your pets like family. But they were sharing at the expense of themselves … So, we started packing up food for their pets, too. That way everyone — even their dogs, cats, and birds — gets a full meal,” said Neighborhood House President Julie Bonar.

Over at Sophia’s Kitchen, where they’re open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., students got to see the food pantry on one of its busiest days of the week.

“This was one of our donation days, so students have been a huge help sorting and packing food,” said Claire Crone, director of Sophia’s Kitchen.

The students thoroughly enjoyed getting to see the different needs of the community up close and personal. Many expressed that they didn’t even think about how hard it would be to live without access to certain amenities they’re so used to, like a pair of shoes.

According to one fifth grade student, “It’s fun that we actually get to do something that helps people.

“It’s also fun that we get to get out of school for a morning,” he said.

Get out the duct tape

This year’s fundraising goal was $20,000. If students met that, they got to enjoy a  celebration assembly after their morning of service.

They exceeded their goal by more than $6,000.

And that’s where the real fun began. If the students met their goal, Principal Martin promised them that they could vote on an activity that would include either sliming her, splatter-painting her, or duct-taping her to the gym wall.

The overwhelming winner was duct-taping her to the wall. At their final celebration to cap the two-week Help-A-Thon, teachers, PTO volunteers, and the six students who raised the most funds used duct tape in school colors — yellow and blue.   

Speaking to the students from her position on the wall, Principal Martin expressed her delight at how much the students stepped up to the plate and took ownership of this initiative.

“I am so proud of our Wildcat community. Because of you, we’ll all benefit from the outdoor classroom and people in the area will find support from the volunteer hours you gave.”

Katie Faley

Katie Faley

is a Peoria native — Notre Dame High, Class of 2013 — who moved away following college, earned a master’s degree in theology from the University of Notre Dame, and returned with a fuller appreciation of her hometown. She works at OSF HealthCare