| Local teen forms 4-H club for disabled children |
Chain of Lakes Collegiate High School student Meg Jessee’s quest for a fun way to earn service hours has turned into a real blessing for disabled children at Our Children’s Academy in Lake Wales. Now three years and nearly 400 service hours later, the 16-year-old Winter Haven girl is teaching a group of some 14 students to make ketchup and recycle crayons. [emember_protected custom_msg=”Click here and register now to read the rest of the article!”]
The group is officially part of Country Ridge 4-H Club, making them eligible to participate in the Polk County Youth Fair. “They would not get to participate otherwise,” says Cathy Reynolds, who leads the 4-H Club. “It’s just amazing. I think that she’s got a gift really to be that young and be that focused.”
Meg, the daughter of Nancy and Chris Jessee, expected to visit the students a couple of times when she first connected with them as a freshman. Instead, the project grew and grew. The first year the children entered about 15 or 20 items in the Youth Fair – the next year it was around 40 and this year it was around 60. “The kids really enjoy it. I enjoy it too,” Meg shares.
“If they win a ribbon, the Youth Fair pays them prize money, $7 or $5,” says Nancy. “These kids were so excited when we gave them their checks.” Meg enjoys seeing them happy with their successes. “One girl told me her mom framed the check. I think it’s really nice to see they can win too. They don’t get that a lot,” she says. “I also enjoy when I go out there. They get real excited to see me.”
Meg visits the students between eight and 13 years old once a month. Sometimes she prepares for a whole day, to enable the elementary students to do and experience things they might not otherwise. That might mean making their own ketchup or dessert in a jar, collecting crayons for cash, or bringing a rabbit, hog or a blind calf they feed with a bottle.
“I honestly think they can relate to Bella (the calf who only sees a little movement out of her right eye),” says the calf’s owner, Stephanie Douthit, the school’s behavior analysis assistant. “They did beautifully with her. Most of those kids have never seen a cow up close and personal.”
Meg’s rabbit Layla has become their unofficial mascot and comes to most of their meetings. The rabbit can be pretty moody with Meg and her family, but is patient with the children. “If we try to grab her out of cage, she’ll kind of growl,” Nancy says. “She’ll bite us as soon as look at us.” But not when it comes to the kids, Nancy continues. “They just love her. They squeeze her and pass her around.” Meg adds, “I guess she just gets it. She’s so nice to them.”
Nancy enjoys seeing her daughter relish others’ successes. “She’s gotten very attached to these kids and vice versa,” Nancy says. “It’s just been an amazing experience for everybody involved.” She’s also seen a positive change in Meg. “She definitely has become more patient,” Nancy adds.
It’s also been a positive experience for the special needs children, says Stephanie, who helps Meg during her visits. “Their social skills definitely improve,” she says, noting it has also boosted their confidence and had a calming effect.
As Meg has gotten older, she’s been able to do more and more of it herself. That has included fundraising to pay for craft supplies. “I’m doing more now that I can drive,” Meg says. “My mom usually comes and helps.”
Meg originally became interested in special education in the fifth grade, when she spoke about the Special Olympics for a speech contest. “She just thought it was great. We really didn’t think too much of it,” Nancy recalls, until Meg expressed the interest to start the club.
Besides her interest in helping others, Meg “wanted to be a vet as soon as she could talk,” so her parents got her a hog to raise. “We wanted to show her it wasn’t all puppies and kittens,” Nancy recalls. “It all backfired on us. That was seventh grade. Six hogs later, we’re still raising hogs.” Nancy’s dad and sister are both veterinarians. “I thought maybe she wanted to be a vet because she’s seen so much of it,” Nancy explains. “I wanted her to see the whole thing. When you raise a hog for Youth Fair, you raise it and somebody eats it. I didn’t think she could do it.” Meg not only did it but loved it. “I think we’re in it for the long haul,” Nancy observes.
When she heads to college, Meg hopes to pass the baton to another volunteer. “It’s a great project. I definitely don’t want it stopped,” she says. Stephanie plans to stay involved. “I honestly wish that more students could have the experience of 4-H – not only for our school but for every school,” she says. “These kids do amazing with it.”
Stephanie says 4-H helps the children take pride in their accomplishments and helps build life skills, even beyond farm-related activities. Of Meg, she adds, “I will hate to see her go. I think I have as much fun as the kids do.”
story by CHERYL ROGERS [/emember_protected]