This National Volunteer Week, we’re proud to recognize grassroots unsung heroes of all ages who don’t expect any recognition, but who deserve it anyway. Heroes like those at Oakland High School.

Oakland High School is a public school of choice in Lafayette, Indiana. It is an alternative to the traditional high school option in the district, but don’t call it an “alternative school.” Students join Oakland High School for a variety of reasons. Some students don’t want to be stuck in hallways with hundreds of other students, some are teen parents, some are couch surfing, and some are trying to graduate early. Whatever the reason may be, they seek Oakland High School to find a home in the educational system that works for them. With a population of only sixty students, every action these high schoolers make represents the character of their school’s culture.

The Jefferson Awards Foundation’s Students in Action program (SIA) started at Oakland High School this fall. Their SIA team started with six members and quickly grew to a dozen. The student members within the organization recruited merely by leading. Their excitement to help others, to be involved with a project that “didn’t have to do anything with school work,” and to work towards their passions, was what peaked their classmates’ interest.

“I came to this school and my friends told me it is a fun thing to do and you get to go out and help, so I decided to join because I love to go out and help.” – Johnny C. 9th Grader

The SIA members decided on focusing on two core issues in the Lafayette community: homelessness and mental health. These weren’t just random topics that were pulled out of a hat or were assigned to them by their advisor. These topics were ones that the students felt in their hearts, either because of someone they knew or from their own personal experiences.

“I was trying to find my place here and Mr. Walker (our principal) recommended me for this group, and I fit right in. Because of this group, I learned that Indiana has one of the highest rates of suicide attempts in the United States.” – Angie P, 11th Grader

The first large event they put together was a Benefit Dinner to support both causes. They collaborated with the other local high school to identify student chefs and music talents, and solicited donations from local businesses. The dinner raised over $300 for their two local organizations of choice: Mental Health America and Habitat for Humanity.

“I learned that a lot of my peers are passionate about working together and helping others.” – Aaliyah G, 11th Grader

“I learned that even the smallest thing can make the biggest impact on someone.” – Chrishawn G, 10th Grader

Another event the students organized was a Poetry Slam to raise awareness about the stigma of mental health. Students were able to use this outlet as an English project in school too, so the high schoolers were encouraged to participate for more than one reason.

“I developed the poetry slam because I wanted to give others a safe outlet to express themselves. I also took what I was learning in this group and told other people about the topics that I’m passionate about.” – Lilly M, 10th Grader

At the end of February, Oakland’s Students in Action team competed in the first Lafayette area Jefferson Awards competition. It was an incredibly intimidating moment to present their work in front of hundreds of other students and community leaders. Besides, these Mighty Oaks were just doing this for fun, and to make a difference, not to win anything! However, they overcame their public speaking nerves, and each played a part in their presentation to earn second place in the competition!

“I have been so proud of these students since day one. These are students who are overcoming the most trauma and adversity that I have ever seen in this community, and yet, they are the ones who want to do good for others. These students were very brave during their speech because they were vulnerable and shared their own personal stories of their battles with mental health and homelessness. I can’t say that I would have been as strong as they are at this age. Being the advisor for Students in Action has been wonderful for me because it has let me see another side to my students: the future.” – Kathryn Stwalley, Faculty Advisor

Even though the competitive season is over for the year, these students still have goals they want to accomplish this summer. Many of them want to pair up with Habitat for Humanity to build homes. They would love to see Oakland High School build a home all on their own. Through Students In Action, they gained confidence in their ability to make a difference, and the skills they need to do it well.

“I wanted a change and you always have to start little. I’m hoping we become very big one day.” – Chase H. 11th Grader