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An Assist from Payless

Grant helps Boys & Girls Club members get new shoes

December 21, 2012
Emily Siegmon - News Staff Writer The Alpena News

ALPENA - One hundred Alpena Boys & Girls Club members will receive new shoes from Payless Shoes during this holiday season. Boy & Girls Club Executive Director Susan Nielsen, said she applied for the grant in early November and received the news earlier this month that Alpena was one of the 500 sites to receive the grant. She said during this time of year, any amount of money that can be used for local families is appreciated and welcomed.

"Our perspective at the Boys & Girls Club is that any money that can free up families to buy other necessities, instead of purchasing shoes, could go toward food or paying bills or whatever is needed is the most special thing," Nielsen said. "We're excited, happy, and thrilled for our kids and their families. It's really nice to have another partner."

Patti Grochowski, Alpena Payless store manager, said every year Payless donates $1.4 million in grants for organizations throughout the world, but she was happy to announce this year was the first year Alpena participated and was awarded the grant.

Article Photos

News Photo by Emily Siegmon 
Patti Grochowski, Alpena Payless store manager, sizes Remington Buchler finding his correct shoe size while Dylan Konarzewski waits for his turn. 

"We're really excited about this, we have lots to offer," Grochowski said. "The main intent is to help people during Christmas time."

Nielsen began the shoe shopping process with a small group of kids on Friday, but she plans on bringing groups of 10-12 children to the Alpena Payless until all 100 $20 gift certificates are used.

"We'll spend all of the certificates. The only criteria we have is that you are a Boys & Girls Club member from one of our three sites. If you want new shoes fill out our form and have your parents sign it," Nielsen said. "We've already had parents say that shoes were on their childrens wish list, maybe Santa could bring them something else."

Ivonne Hilleary, part-time associate, said all of the Alpena Payless employees are happy to be a part of a team that can give back to the community this year, during the holiday season.

"I think it's really cool to get something like this, especially because my family is having tough times right now. This is a really good thing for us," Dylan Konarzewski, an AHS student, said.

Juvenile crime drops 50 percent in Alpena County

January 9, 2013
Steve Schulwitz - News Staff Writer The Alpena News

ALPENA - It appears that programs in Alpena County are leading to a reduced number of juvenile delinquencies, and the number of juveniles who are repeat offenders has drastically decreased. According to a recent year end report from probate court the number of juveniles charged with a crime dropped 50 percent from 2011.

Judge Tom LaCross said it is encouraging to see the number of crimes committed by adolescents drop. He said the decline is credited to the success of programs offered to help struggling youth. LaCross said the youth drug court and the supervised community service program are two of the main reasons more kids are staying out of trouble. He said the community in general has helped to limit the amount of crimes being committed by minors.

"I would think the drop in delinquencies is purely a result of the court, but it is not. Society is responding to delinquent acts; we have a stronger law enforcement response and a greater response in the schools," LaCross said. "Mental health is responding and places like Boys and Girls Club of Alpena, youth groups and church groups are responding. It is because of all of these type of things put together that has allowed us to see the drop in delinquencies."

LaCross said one of the leading causes of crime is drugs. He said the recent problem the area had with synthetic drugs was a real concern, but because of strong community support and swift action by District Health Department No. 4, the drugs, which were legal at the time but are now banned in the state, were removed from store shelves and out of the hands of children.

"The community really responded in a marvelous way, more aggressively than any community in the state," LaCross said. "Alpena was ahead of the curve when it came to these dangerous drugs. There were protests, public meetings, and the community just took the ball and ran with it. The citizens stood up and said this is enough and we can't wait for a law to be passed. The health department declared the drugs a public hazard and the stores were raided, and because of all these things the kids couldn't get the drugs. This could be the biggest factor in why the number of juvenile crimes went down."

The local youth work program has been in place for some time, and according to LaCross it has been recognized statewide and even offered as an example to other communities. LaCross said it also plays a roll in reducing crime. He said kids who have been in trouble do work for the county or nonprofit organizations. He said it is effective because other kids see the workers in the brightly colored vests, which mark them as a juvenile criminal, and send them a message.

"The supervised community work was the subject of articles in the Detroit Free Press and the Michigan Supreme Court website has it as one of its highlighted programs that work well," LaCross said. "This program is cheap and very effective. Right now other courts are emulating what we have started."

LaCross said keeping children on the straight and narrow begins at home and with the parents. He said teachers, community leaders and the courts can help, but it is the parents who must set the example and be mindful of what their children are doing.

"The most important team player is the parents and or parent," LaCross said. "They have a huge responsibility not only to make the child, but to raise the child to adulthood and to be a responsible citizen, the child has the right to a good upbringing. I think schools should offer parenting classes. It is as important as math or English in my opinion."

Erich Schlueter runs the Youth Academy program at the Boys and Girls Club of Alpena and works very hard to see these type of results and inspire youth find healthy activities to participate in. 

Boys and Girls Club-YVC shows commitment to community

September 7, 2012
The Alpena News

Youth Volunteer Corps programs across the U.S. reported that summer youth volunteer participants not only felt a stronger connection to their community after volunteering, but felt empowered to make a difference and would continue volunteering in the future.

This was very evident with the youth from Alpena who stepped up and volunteered nearly 3,400 hours of service to the community just during the summer program helping out non-profit agencies like NEMCSA, United Way, Boys and Girls Club and Alpena County Library, among many others.

"Our goal at YVC when designing youth volunteer projects is to engender a lifetime ethic of service," said Brad Somers, director of the YVC program. "We have a lot of fun during the summer program helping out with a diverse range of projects and we try to fill the needs of the community wherever we can."

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Courtesy Photo

Some of the participants in a summer Youth Volunteer Corps clean-up project paused from their duties to have this photo taken.

Somers also said the youth get become more in tune with their community and gain a voice amongst area leaders.

"A goal of the program is to build leaders through volunteerism and for the youth to realize their potential as productive citizens," he said.

Many of the youth volunteers (ages 11-18) participated in the 12-week 2012 YVC summer program in the Alpena area. YVC used pre and post surveys to gather their perceptions of volunteering, their understanding of community needs and their satisfaction with the YVC projects. The results are as follows:

Percentage of youth volunteers who reported an improvement in their responses or maintained high responses to the following:

Percentage of youth volunteers who answered positively to the following:

Volunteer Leah Simon of Alpena said, "I like volunteering because I like to give back to my community and I will continue to volunteer in the future because it makes me feel great about myself and others."

"It is a heart warming feeling when youth volunteers are empowered by the work they do for their communities and become more comfortable with diversity and stepping up to help others," said Somers. "This is further evidence that when teens are given a well thought out, well designed program, volunteering can make a huge difference in their lives and their communities."

YVC is a nonprofit promoting a lifetime commitment to service among youth by providing quality service projects for young people. For 23 years, YVC has engaged over 240,000 young people from diverse backgrounds in year-round service projects. Based in Kansas City, Kansas, YVC is in 50 programs across the United States and Canada.

For more information or to join the Boys and Girls Club of Alpena YVC, call 358-5362 or 356-0214. The program is free and is currently underway with its school year component.

Volunteers uproot easily mistaken invasive plants

July 22, 2012
Erika Fifelski - News Staff Writer The Alpena News

ALPENA - What looks like an innocent purple flower is actually the nemesis of many native flowers on Island Park. The spotted knapweed is an invasive species that can choke out native plant life, and organizations and community members met at Island Park Friday morning to collaborate eradication forces.

Elizabeth Littler of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary board said it is the goal of her group to maintain Island Park for educational and recreational purposes. Part of doing that, she said, is removing invasive species. The spotted knapweed can be carried to non-native locations by humans and animals.

"People should be aware that when their dogs are running through here, he's taking it home and you could find it in your yard," she said.

Volunteers uprooted the spotted knapweed and put the plants in large, black trash bags. Littler will take the bags home and leave the plants inside them until she is sure they are dead and can cause no more harm. At this point in the summer, the spotted knapweed has yet to bloom, and its seeds have not spread.

"There are 1,000 seeds per plant. Once it goes to flower and the seeds drop, it starts to be a problem," said AmeriCorps Stewardship Coordinator Elizabeth Stevens.

Blooming occurs in July through September.

Although they look harmless, the spotted knapweed plants crowd out native plants on the island, like the golden rod, native grasses and dotted mint.

"A lot of invasives look pretty and or look like a native," Stevens said.

Children from the Girls and Boys Club Youth Volunteer Corps spent time pulling the weeds. Logan Siess, 11, said invasive species are an ongoing problem that cannot be solved in one morning.

"These invasive species could take over the natural species, and then it would be all invasive species and no natives," he said.

The YVC children do several volunteer sessions throughout the summer, said Boys and Girls Club employee Stephen Luty.

"They learn early on that stuff in the community doesn't just happen. They learn what work goes into it. They learn they can be a part of the community at a young age," he said.

Littler said the isolated location of the spotted knapweed on the island may make it easier to eradicate. Siess said he hopes that is the case.

"It's good for the community," he said.

Boys & Girls Club provides kid-friendly food and fun

June 12, 2012
By DIANE SPEER - News Lifestyles Editor The Alpena News

Summer is in full swing at the Boys & Girls Club of Alpena, where besides all the fun activities planned for the kids, a free food program also is being served up.

"We have lunch every day and snack every day at the club for kids ages 6 to 18," said Executive Director Susan Nielsen. "You don't have to be a member. Anybody between those ages can come to the club and eat."

The program kicked off last week with the end of the school year. On the first day of summer break, 24 youngsters took a pause from whatever activities they were involved in at the club to line up for lunch. The menu for the day featured a pasta/ham salad, watermelon, pickles and milk. Later in the day, the kids were expected to get crackers and cheese, plus juice as a snack.

Article Photos

News Photo by Diane Speer
Boys & Girls Club of Alpena staff members Matt Muszynski and Jen Digna serve up meals to some of the many youngsters currently enjoying the summer activities and free food program available at the facility.

Menus for later in the week included ham and cheese wraps, beef burritos, various kinds of fruit, carrots and homemade banana bread. All the food is prepared off-site by caterer Charleen Dubie and then transported by her to the club.

"Of course we want to provide a nutritious meal," Nielsen said. "The food is delicious and kid-friendly. We are really proud of our meals."

Saying please and thank-you are highly encouraged at mealtime at the club, but with a twist. Instead of routinely repeating the same words day after day, the kid have been learning sign language that they can use in place of the usual expected words.

When Nielsen first started working at the club a number of years ago, she watched some kids struggling because they were hungry.

"It interfered with every facet of their day," she said. "We then started to explore the possibility with other granters at the state level of feeding them somehow, some way."

The efforts paid off, and the club was deemed eligible for a year-round food program. It is provided through the federal government but regulated by the state.

"We're so grateful for it," Nielsen said. "We're happy to help our families in this way. So many of our families work. It's nice to know they can drop their kids off at noon and don't have to worry about lunch or snack. They don't need money to buy food that probably isn't that good for them anyway. They know they are going to have a great time with all the activities, plus have a nutritious meal and snack."

The other piece involved in providing a food program at the club is having activities to go along with it.

"The state of Michigan mandates that you have something to do, so we have tons of things for them to do," Nielsen said.

Throughout the summer, the club opens Monday through Friday at noon. Closing time is at 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 5 p.m. Friday.

The theme for the summer months is "The Great Outdoors."

"We want to get kids outside to enjoy all the great things they can take part in during the summer in Northern Michigan," Nielsen said.

The summer agenda includes nature-based programs, computer-generated programs, all kinds of character and leadership development programs, and lots of sports, fitness and recreation. Kids also will get to go fishing, hiking, exploring and fossil hunting.

Though membership is not required to take advantage of the free meal program, Nielsen said that at some point parents will be asked to fill out a very basic form giving permission for their child to join the club. For more information about the club or the food program, stop by the Boys & Girls Club, located at 601 River, or call 356-0214.

Children hit the park for River Rats science program

June 15, 2011
Andrew Westrope - News Staff Writer The Alpena News

ALPENA - Summer has returned to Northeast Michigan and with it, a unique opportunity for local children to learn about Michigan's natural world.

Starting Wednesday, Alpena Public School teachers Alice Holcomb and Melissa Doubek once again will host the River Rats Summer Science Program at the Duck Park every other Wednesday from 10 a.m.-12 p.m. for kids five to 10 years old.

The program began with a few small sessions in Sytek Park two years ago and expanded into a 75-kid outdoor classroom in 2010, with five two-hour sessions, including hikes, crafts, games and other hands-on activities at the Duck Park and Sportsman's Island.

Holcomb and Doubek like to mix it up with different subjects every year, and this summer's sessions include frogs, logs and pollywogs; water; animals; and birds. They see the wildlife sanctuary's planned River Center as a potentially invaluable resource for the future of education and tourism in the community and planned their curriculum around that promise.

"Alice Holcomb and I have been working on it. We're both working members of the island sanctuary committee, and we are promoting the development of the River Center," Doubek said. "We're very fortunate to live with an island in the middle of our city, because it's a free place for science education and environmental education right here."

They came up with the name "River Rats" with the River Center in mind, Doubek said, also referring to muskrats that live in the sanctuary.

She expects an average of about 45 kids per session and said the entire program is free, though it accepts donations and is sponsored by the City of Alpena Wildlife Sanctuary Board and the River Center. Funding comes mostly from a city rec grant, the Community Foundation for Northeast Michigan, and Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative in addition to Holcomb and Doubek's personal efforts. Volunteers from Youth Volunteer Corps, AHS Advanced Biology, Alpena Garden Club, Huron Pines, the island sanctuary and other community partners also will lend a hand.

Children interested in exploring local nature through hands-on activities and field experience are encouraged to attend, and no prior registration or signup is necessary. Children need to be accompanied by a parent, guardian or day care provider, and the hands-on activities mean participants are likely to get dirty, so sturdy outdoor wear is highly recommended. For more information, contact Holcomb at 340-0121 or Doubek at 356-4371.

Rotary Club visits Boys and Girls Club

January 31, 2011
The Alpena News

For one of its major service projects, the Rotary Club of Alpena has started with assistance to the Boys and Girls Club for the installation of a new computer lab. The first phase of the three-year commitment is complete, and on Jan. 17, Rotarians held their luncheon meeting at the club with members of its staff and board to learn about recent progress toward the objective.

The first phase consists of seven new networked computers, monitors, other peripherals, and a color printer. Other improvements to the computer lab are new ceiling tiles, a fresh cleaning of the carpet, electrical work, and new cabinets provided by Panel Processing. Resources used for this phase included $6,150 cash and in-kind contributions. Wildcat Unit Director Bradley Somers briefed the Rotarians on how staff members assist the youth with computer use and protect their safety.

The Rotary Club of Alpena brings 78 local leaders together for fellowship, community service, personal development, and participation in worldwide projects of Rotary International like professional/student exchanges, literacy, polio eradication, and village water wells. Patrick Heraghty of Midwest Transaction Group serves as this year's president.

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Courtesy Photo
Left to right, Alpena Rotary Club President Patrick Heraghty, Boys and Girls Club Wildcat Unit Director Bradley Somers and Rotary Club Community Service Director Linda Sansom.

Left to right, Alpena Rotary Club President Patrick Heraghty, Boys and Girls Club Wildcat Unit Director Bradley Somers and Rotary Club Community Service Director Linda Sansom.

The Boys and Girls Club of Alpena fulfills its mission of character development and enrichment experiences for youth through the commitment and dedication of its staff members.

County approves sale to Boys and Girls Club

December 21, 2010
Steve Schulwitz

ALPENA - The Alpena Boys and Girls Club is in the process of trying to acquire enough money through grants and fundraisers to renovate a quickly deteriorating building. On Tuesday, the Alpena County Board of Commissioners did its part by selling the property the club is located to the organization.

Although the building that houses the club is owned by the Alpena Boys and Girls Club, the land is still owned by the county, and the two parties operate on a 99-year lease. The current lease requires the club to pay the county $1 a year for use of the land. Boys and Girls Club staff believe collecting money for the needed repairs will be easier if it owns the land as well.

Director Susan Nielsen said time is of the essence because the building is failing and money is needed.

"We have to do something to the building," Nielsen said. "We are trying to raise funds through grants, fundraisers and donations, but I can't imagine someone giving us money for a building we don't own the land to."

The commissioners agreed to sell the land, which is valued at a low end of $58,000 and a high of $71,000. Prosecutor Ed Black is going to control the issues of studying the current lease agreement and work on the deed. Commissioner Lyle VanWormer said he visited the facility and structure and said a lot of repairs need to be done. He said the county could just give the property to the club but thinks the commissioners owe it to the taxpayers to get at least something for the land.

"I think it has been over 25 years since anything has been done to it. The roof is caving in, and it leaks. Buckets are being used to collect the water," VanWormer said. "There is also an 11 3/4-inch sink on the northeast corner of the building. The compaction has settled away, and the floor is broken up. It is in dire need and needs to be addressed. We would like to do whatever we can to help them out."

Commissioner Bill Estlack said he would like to see a clause in any purchase agreement between the two sides that would return the land back to the county should the club move or become defunct. After adding the stipulation, the commissioners voted unanimously to move forward with the sale of the riverside property.

Lions visit Boys and Girls Club

September 29, 2010
The Alpena News

The Alpena Lions recently took their lunch meeting to the Boys and Girls Club of Alpena where they were welcomed by Director Susan Nielsen, who is also second vice president of the Lions Club.

The Boys and Girls Club has been a part of the Alpena community since 1926, as they make a difference in the lives of young people. Their motto is "The future starts here."

The club is a busy place during the summer months and every day after school. There are also units at Alpena High School and Thunder Bay Junior High School. Cost is very minimal at $6 per year for an individual and $10 for a family, but money can never be the reason someone does not participate.

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Courtesy Photo
Alpena Lions Club President Randy Boboltz, left, joined his fellow club members recently for a lunch meeting at the Boys and Girls Club. Shown with him are Boys and Girls Club staff members Ken Baker and Brad Somers, Director Susan Nielsen and staff member Helen Wilke.

Alpena Lions Club President Randy Boboltz, left, joined his fellow club members recently for a lunch meeting at the Boys and Girls Club. Shown with him are Boys and Girls Club staff members Ken Baker and Brad Somers, Director Susan Nielsen and staff member Helen Wilke.

The Lions also heard from three of the staff members, each of whom are involved in different areas of the program. Brad Somers has the responsibility of working with the Youth Volunteer Corps which he describes as a "fun program to run." One of YVC's newer ventures will be working with the City of Alpena as "drains to waterways" are examined.

Ken Baker, another staff member, described the teen court system and the Youth Academy where they have a boot camp in which participants learn, among other things, to respect authority.

Last to speak was Helen Wilke who is the TBJHS coordinator. One of her programs is Smart Moves, where the lessons of saying "no" to drugs, having a healthy self-image and how to get along with parents are taught.

Everyone speaking had a true passion for working with students and was excited about the positive influence the Boys and Girls Club is having on the lives of Alpena youngsters.

Members of the Lions Club were also reminded about the Mint Sale that is taking place Oct. 15 and asked to help out if possible.

Rotary Club takes on computer lab project

September 1, 2010
The Alpena News

For one of its major service projects this year, the Rotary Club of Alpena is assisting the Boys and Girls Club with the implementation of a new computer lab. This three-year project is scheduled to begin in the fall of 2010 with volunteers from the club preparing the new lab for the necessary equipment.

Each phase of the project will include the purchase of a minimum of five computers, along with peripherals like monitors and printers. The Rotary Club Board has approved expenditures of $5,000 per year to fund the project and has also secured a one-time matching grant of $2,000 from Rotary District 6310, for a total of $17,000.

During 2009 the Boys and Girls Club served 2,225 youngsters (unduplicated head count) of pre-teen and teenagers at three main locations and several satellite sites.

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Boys and Girls Club of Alpena Executive Director Susan Nielsen, center left, accepts a mock check from Linda Sansom of the Rotary Club of Alpena. The check represents Rotary’s commitment to providing funds for a new computer lab at the Boys and Girls Club.

Boys and Girls Club of Alpena Executive Director Susan Nielsen, center left, accepts a mock check from Linda Sansom of the Rotary Club of Alpena. The check represents Rotary’s commitment to providing funds for a new computer lab at the Boys and Girls Club.

An updated computer lab with the most current software and technology represents an exciting opportunity for youngsters who do not have access to computers.

Honored for service

June 22, 2010
Erika Fifelski

The Alpena Boys and Girls Club is honoring one of its board of directors who recently was award the Presidential Service Award.

Beverly Bodem received the award for volunteering over 2,000 hours in the community in her lifetime. Boys and Girls Clubs all over the state annually nominate a member of their board of directors for the award. Bodem has been a member of the board for 12 years, serving as the president of the board of directors, the resource development chair and currently as secretary.

"I had a feeling she would win because she has a rich background in service," said Susan Nielsen, director of the Alpena Boys and Girls Club. "I don't think people realize the value of volunteers. That they would give one of the most precious things - that's time."

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News Photo by Erika Fifelski
Beverly Bodem holds the Presidential Service Award she was given for her years of volunteer service to the community.

Beverly Bodem holds the Presidential Service Award she was given for her years of volunteer service to the community.

Bodem's experience within the government has gained her contacts that bring statewide help and ideas back to her own community. She attends conferences and meetings in which she can compare different clubs.

"It's refreshing to come back with a lot of ideas," Bodem said.

Bodem has been working as district director for state Sen. Tony Stamas since 2003. She also worked for former state Sen. Mike Goschka and was elected herself as the state representative for the 106th district in 1991-1998.

"It has helped Alpena to be well positioned by having a well connected and knowledgeable board," Nielsen said. "It's been so valuable to have her know so many people in Lansing and find out about many new ideas."

Probate Judge Tom LaCross has known Bodem since her days as a state representative. He said shealways has been community oriented.

"She's the type of person that should get the Presidential Award. She's always busted her tail for so many groups and organizations. That she got this award is an obvious to me," he said.

Bodem works full time for Stamas and uses her nights and weekends to do volunteering. She said if meetings are early in the afternoon, she uses her lunch break to attend them.

"It's a lot of travel, but there are so many wonderful people out there working hard for their community," she said. "I perform better when I'm really pushed to the limit. I take it day by day and do what I can do as much as I can."

A reception to honor Bodem will be held at Nielsen's home on Friday. Many members of the Michigan government including the governor were invited.

"I hope people will stop by and congratulate Beverly," Nielsen said.

Rain garden concept used at Thunder Bay River site

June 24, 2009
By DIANE SPEER/News Lifestyles Editor

A sizable group of volunteers has spent part of the last two days planting a "rain garden" on the banks of the Thunder Bay River beside the Ninth Avenue Bridge.

Though the garden resembles a perennial garden, its purpose goes beyond merely looking beautiful. The specialized garden also is intended to absorb and filter rain water into the ground rather than have it run off into the river, carrying potential pollutants with it.

"Rain gardens use natural plants that are deep-rooted and suck up the water," said Elizabeth Littler, who was put in charge of the project.

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Volunteers from two local garden clubs and two summer youth programs joined forces this week to plant a rain garden along the Thunder Bay River by the Ninth Avenue Bridge.

At the request of the city, she researched the rain garden concept, developed a plan and used allocated funds from the city to purchase the necessary plants.

Littler, a member of the Alpena Garden Club, was joined by other fellow club members as well as volunteers from the Thunder Bay Garden Club, Youth Volunteer Corps, Michigan Works! Summer Youth Program and Sytek Park volunteers group.

Among the native plants inserted in the sloping ground were purple coneflower, flag iris, goldenrod, beard tongue, aster, columbine, ragwort and lobelia.

"They are all Midwest plants," Littler said. "We tried to do the same thing at Sytek Park. Instead of grass that just bends over when it rains and the water rolls off, this will allow the rain water to go into the ground. The water gets clean as it goes."

Rain gardens were first conceived in 1990 by stormwater specialists in the state of Maryland. Since that time, a number of individuals, municipalities and organizations have influenced and enhanced the rain garden movement in the United States. The deep-rooted plants chosen come back year after year and do not need special attention once they are established.

The gardens can contribute to what is known as groundwater recharge, a natural process that is often interrupted by soil compaction and hard surfaces created during development and building. Such gardens also form a wildlife habitat for butterflies and birds.

Nicky Sommerfeld, a coordinator for YVC, said the planting project was a perfect one for participants in the YVC's summer program.

"We've been doing some painting and clean-up, but it's nice to be outside," Sommerfeld said. "The kids like to be outdoors."

Among the YVC participants helping Monday with the planting was Taylor Kanarr of Alpena.

"It's fun, but kind of confusing because the plants have to go in a straight line," said Kanarr, who in the past has done a bit of home gardening with her mother. "It benefits the community and I enjoy doing that."

AHS students reach goal of 250 letters to sick children

May 21, 2009
Crystal Nelson


News Staff Writer

Students at Alpena High School have been writing letters since the beginning of the year to make the day a little brighter for children who are dealing with chronic or life-threatening illnesses. Approximately 20 students have written letters to36 children through Make A Child Smile, a non-profit organization, with the help of the Boys and girls club of Alpena Youth Volunteer Corps. YVC made the letter writing an after school activity.

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Alpena High School eleventh grader Sara LaBarge works on a letter after school as part of the Make A Child Smile after school activity the Boys and Girls Club of Alpena Youth Volunteer Corps. has been hosting since the beginning of the year. LaBarge is one of approximately 20 students who have become involved with the project and has written several letters to children who are chronically ill. 

Alpena High School eleventh grader Sara LaBarge works on a letter after school as part of the Make A Child Smile after school activity the Boys and Girls Club of Alpena Youth Volunteer Corps has been hosting since the beginning of the year. LaBarge is one of approximately 20 students who have become involved with the project and has written several letters to children who are chronically ill. 

Team Leader Bradley Somers who thought of the project after finding the organization on the internet, said the students wrote 250 letters as of Tuesday - a goal he set for the students.

"The kids either like it or they don't like it," Somers said. "A lot of the kids think it's too sad to write to them because they know they're in the hospital and sick, but on the other hand that's why a lot of the kids like doing it because they like knowing the person that is reading it is going to enjoy it."

For an hour or two after school once a week, the students will write, doodle and add stickers to letters on brightly colored paper or handmade cards. The students write the letters knowing they may never receive a response, as the organization's web site indicates, but do it knowing they will put a smile on a child's face.

"It's purely us writing to them - something that takes their mind away from being sick for a while," he said.

The students write to children the Make A Child Smile web site features each month and can follow their profile as they work through their illness. Each child's profile is written and updated by their parent and can let those writing letters know how the child is doing, if they have had any recent relapses or surgeries and if they are in need of letters. Letters can also be written to the parents and any siblings the ill child may have.

According to Somers, the students have written to a girl in Michigan and children in numerous other states including Fla., Mass., and Texas. She said because of the letter writing and the ability to track the child's illness, a connection forms.

He said the high school students put in a lot of time, effort and a lot of themselves into the project and he thinks that's what makes it such a good project.

"It's special to get a hand-written letter now-a-days, so we try to do that," he said.

The Make A Child Smile web site designates sections for children who are featured kids, current kids, inactive kids or angels - children who have died.

The students have also encountered situations where some of the children they were writing to have passed away. Somers said the high school students "really took it hard" and liked writing one of the children because at 15-years-old, he was in their age group and was involved in football and wrestling which the students could relate to. He said the students have sent condolence cards to the families in these instances.

Somers said he would like the project to continue over the summer and through next year and has set more goals. He hopes the students would be able to reach 300 letters in the summer and over 500 letters by the end of the next school year.

Boys & Girls Club unfurls 'Be Great' initiative

May 8, 2009
By DIANE SPEER/News Lifestyles Editor

The potential for greatness lies within every child.

Boys and Girls Clubs of America believes it has the necessary means to enable youth, especially those who need it most, to reach their full potential as productive, responsible and caring citizens. In an effort to renew its long-standing efforts at encouraging youth to reach that potential, the national organization has developed a new brand campaign called "Be Great."

Locally, the Boys and Girls Club of Alpena has opted participated in this national initiative and will be asking for the community's participation.

Article Photos

Courtesy Photos
Those attending the Boys and Girls Club of Alpena engage in a variety of positive activities, including a quilt project for the Sunrise Mission, shown in the top photo, and a membership recruitment gathering, shown below.

"It's a national endeavor offered to us," said Susan Nielsen, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Alpena. "We don't have to do it, but we think it's neat, and we think our kids will like it."

The new 10-week program will be unfurled at the club's annual meeting May 15 at the Thunder Bay Recreation Center. How it works is that at the beginning stage of the program, club participants will fill in the blank on a simple card that asks them to state in one word how they would they like to "be." Answers, which will be displayed on a bulletin board, could typically range from "Be Popular" and "Be Cute" to "Be Athletic and "Be Funny."

The kids will then spend the next 10 weeks engaged in the club's regular Smart Moves programming that concentrates on skills mastery and resistance training. According to Nielsen, often times youthful participants don't realize they are learning better coping and life skills while they are taking part in the many activities at the club.

"We do lots of 'disguised' learning," Nielsen said. "That doesn't mean there's not formal learning, but lots of times just having kids playing in the gym with someone who's been trained to talk with them about what it takes to have good character is a huge boost to growing up."

Community involvement also is a key component to the "Be Great" campaign. Residents are encouraged to be an advocate for the club by filling out their own "Be" card with one word of advice to kids on how to be their best self. Their answers might range from "Be Hopeful" and "Be Sincere" to "Be Kind" and "Be Helpful."

"So many say they want to help us, but they don't have the funds," Nielsen said. "Well this is a way. They can fill out a word on a card that is a word of advice, a word of encouragement from a community member."

The "Be" card is included in today's Alpena News (see ad at the bottom of this page) and can be clipped out and sent in to the Boys and Girls Club. The words of wisdom from community members will be shared with the kids.

When the 10-week period is up, youth at the club will be asked to reassess their growth over the summer months and fill out a new "Be" card that hopefully will reflect their new perspective on what it takes to be their best self.

The "Be" cards also will be available at the May 15 annual raffle dinner that begins at 6 p.m. Cost of the meal is $150 per couple and includes a meal, a chance to win a $3,000 cash prize and many additional prizes. The 2009 Youth of the Year will be speaking as will Jim Szczukowski of Alpena, a long-time supporter who joined the club as a child in 1935.

AHS Seniors leave their mark on school, community

May 6, 2009
Crystal Nelson

Seniors in the graduating class of 2009 participated in Alpena High School's first-ever senior service extravaganza Wednesday. After the school day ended seniors worked on service projects to help beautify the high school's campus and in turn, the community.

The students were able to make a difference with many service projects that included cleaning up the campus, assembling picnic tables for the senior courtyard, sprucing up the senior courtyard, beginning to renovate the B-house courtyard, writing letters to Make A Child Smile and making pillows for cancer patients.

Michelle Miller, who has been working with the senior planning team, said the extravaganza was thought of by the students on the team, which was started as part of Principal Matt Poli's senior project vision. She said the senior planning team was started last year so that the seniors could have input as to what they would like to see happen at the high school.

"Last year they had a senior project and they worked on the courtyard between D and E house and this year their senior project vision was to encompass a lot more than just our building," she said. "So they're working on projects that will help the community and even beyond with the Make a Child Smile."

She said the event is a way for students to give back to the school and the community that have done so much for them.

Krystal Losinski, a member of the school's senior planning team, helped to plan the senior project. Losinski said the team has been working on the project since the beginning of the year.

"It's an awesome experience doing it, because then I have something to remember" she said. "It's going to be something that I'm going to hold with me for a long time because then I feel like I'm actually doing something for the people coming here for the next couple of years, I feel like I had some kind of legacy because I helped."

Nicole DeFour, a member of the senior planning team and chairperson of the senior project committee, said the committee chose projects that were easy, convenient and practical that students could actually participate in and have fun with.

"The most important thing was that it make a difference," she said. "We wanted projects that were going to make a difference not only in the community but also in the country."

The event was made possible through the coordination of several groups on the high school's campus including the senior planning team, the Youth Volunteer Corps from the Boy's and Girl's Club and several of the school's staff members. Miller said the senior service will be an annual event as long as Poli is principal.

Number of local teens volunteering continues to increase

December 25, 2008
Patty Ramus

Taylour Boboltz used to be a shy individual and became more outgoing when she began volunteering.

The Alpena teen started volunteering last year during the summer and is involved with the Alpena Youth Volunteer Corps.

"It's really gratifying to know you're helping these people. The smiles on their faces makes it worth it," she said.

Article Photos

News Photo by Lori Werth
Taylor Kindt, a youth volunteer, selects her ball at Thunder Bowl Lanes, where the Youth Volunteer Corp held their Christmas party this year. The YVC is just one local group that has seen an increase in the number of youths volunteering.

Taylor Kindt, a youth volunteer, selects her ball at Thunder Bowl Lanes, where the Youth Volunteer Corp held their Christmas party this year. The YVC is just one local group that has seen an increase in the number of youths volunteering.

Several area organizations, agencies and governmental entities have reaped the benefits from the work of teen volunteers.

Northern Lights Arena often has team members of the Alpena IceDiggers or Alpena Wrecks, National Honor Society members, Alpena High School leadership class students and Huron House or Hope House residents drop in to assist with a variety of tasks. They serve as skate guards during open ice skating and help prepare for and clean up after events, said Manager Bob Krafft.

"I know they're a very important part of the arena and they do save us a lot of money and help a lot," he said.

The Boys and Girls Club of Alpena offers a couple different venues for teens to donate some of their time.

The Youth Volunteer Corps, one of the club's programs, offers a chance for students between the ages of 11 and 18 to do service projects after school, some weekends and during the summer. Projects are based on what students want to do, what they believe are needs in the community and contacts from area agencies. Agencies have requested assistance for items such as staffing for the Alpena County Library carnival in the summer or handling soup at an Art in the Loft event, said Director Angie Stoughton.

Students often organize projects including caring for animals at the Huron Humane Society, mentoring children at the Boys and Girls Club and packing food for a Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency program in Ossineke. These tend to be the most popular volunteering opportunity with students and projects are typically scheduled a month in advance.

Fact Box

Numbers of teen volunteers in area agencies

Boys and Girls Club of Alpena

  • Youth Volunteer Corps : 554 enrolled, about 100 members who are active
  • Club Bigs: 28 matches

Friendship Room

  • Between 25 and 30 annually

"I think the Youth Volunteer Corps program is tremendous in helping kids develop different skills like communication and leadership. It just helps them to communicate and plan projects," Stoughton said. "I think it's also a good way for kids to explore different types of careers because we go to different agencies and learn about different positions there."

Students are required to fill out a membership form to be involved so the club has permission to transport students. Two AmeriCorps members serve as team leaders when students are taken out, so the projects are always supervised.

Stoughton said the interest among students to volunteer has increased within the last year. Between September and December of 2007, students logged 1,320 volunteer hours. Between September and Dec. 17 this year students volunteered for 2,147 hours.

"We actually have waiting lists for projects now and we've never had that," she said.

The Boys and Girls Club's Club Bigs program also has seen an increase in teen volunteerism. Shannon Kennedy, mentoring program director, said last year there were 12 matches. This year there are 28 matches.

Kennedy said high students starting with freshman involved with Club Bigs are matched with individually with a child of the same gender. The older students spend one day each week with their child at the Boys and Girls Club playing games or working on different projects together.

The children benefit from the one-on-one attention they receive and knowing someone cares about them. The high school students have a good time with the kids and can earn one-fourth of a credit towards graduation if they volunteer for 50 hours, Kennedy said.

Area students also give back to their community through faith-based entities.

Marsha Hoppe and Penny Pelleran coordinate all high school and junior high students who are involved with Catholic church youth groups in Alpena. The number of students who volunteer varies and depends upon the service project. Every other month approximately 20 students go to the Friendship Room at St. Bernard Catholic Church and each month different students go. Students also have participated in planting flowers for the City of Alpena and collaborated with other youth groups to raise money for homeless awareness, Hoppe said.

Every other year students participate in home-based projects and travel to different areas other years. Home projects have included staining the deck for the Sunrise Mission or planting grass for Habitat for Humanity. This year students traveled to Iowa for a relief trip, Hoppe said.

"I really have seen more of an increase in service of kids period. I think they see it in the economy and they want to be a part of what's going on," she said. "When they start doing this at a young age, then they grow up being adults that serve."

Between individuals and organizations that come in, the Friendship Room utilizes between 25 and 30 teen volunteers per year. Students often come from the court system, volunteer corps or they're just interested in helping out. They perform the same tasks as any other volunteer, which include stocking shelves, pouring beverages and serving, said Director Annette Brewington.

Amanda Augustyn of Alpena became involved in September with the volunteer corps. She started because she wanted to be involved in the community, she said.

"It makes me feel I actually make a difference in the community," she said. "I've learned that now I have more skills to go out and be social."

Free lunches offered at Boys and Girls Club

June 16, 2008
By DIANE SPEER, News Lifestyles Editor
Along with a wide range of summer activities, the Boys and Girls Club of Alpena is offering its participants free lunches and snacks.

Through a partnership with the Alpena Youth Center and funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the club is able to offer this service.

“We want to make the summer as convenient for families as we can because times are tough for everyone,” said Boys and Girls Club Executive Director Susan Nielsen. “Sometimes just having to fix lunch everyday can be tough for families. We want to be part of the solution.”

The meals will include kid-friendly foods such as macaroni and cheese or tacos, along with milk or juice. Snacks also should be appealing and feature items like cheese and crackers, granola bars, veggies and dip. Milk or juice also will be available with the snacks to be served at 3:30 p.m. daily.

Nielsen said she began looking around for available food programs after noticing that many children who came to the club either forgot to bring their lunch or money. The club does have a snack machine on the premises, but she said it doesn’t qualify as a nutritious meal.

Initially, about 50 lunches will be prepared each day at the Alpena Youth Center and then transported to the Boys and Girls Club. That number can be increased, however, if more children take advantage of the program.

Nielsen said the summer food program will be closely monitored by USDA officials. She has traveled to Lansing for training in administering the program and USDA officials have been on site inspecting the facilities of the club. Nielsen also has worked with AYC Executive Director Charleen Dubie to make sure the program will run smoothly.

According to Dubie, all the food is prepared in her agency’s full service, commercial-grade kitchen and follows USDA guidelines for daily allowances of the basic food groups. All of the food is homemade, and the meals often feature fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Partnering together helps us pay for our kitchen,” said Dubie. “We are cooking for our kids anyways, but we are not reimbursed for the total cost of what we are providing. So sharing our kitchen with the Boys and Girls Club may allow us to break even and get 50 more kids meals every day.”

Dubie also said that sharing agency resources always ends up being a positive for the kids coming to the Alpena Youth Center.

“We’re also looking at trying an inter-generational garden again at Luther Community Manor, which is absolutely great for the kids,”

Dubie said.

Although the lunches and snacks will be served daily, Nielsen said the summer food program at the Boys and Girls Club doesn’t take the place of regular fun activities the club holds throughout the summer such as weekly movies with popcorn.

With the ongoing construction projects around the city, Nielsen noted that some people have wrongly assumed the club is temporarily shut down.

“I think some people believe we are closed, but that is not the case,” she said. “They can come in on Seventh Avenue and pull right into the club parking lot. If for any reason streets are blocked, our staff can come out to Seventh, meet the kids and ensure that they get to the club safely.”

The club is open to anyone ages 6 to 18. Many activities are split between juniors (ages 6 to 12) and seniors (ages 13 to 18), with a summer theme of “Treasure Alpena - Go Green.” Outdoor activities will be offered all summer long in five core areas ranging from sports and education to arts and health/fitness. Among the offerings are a gardening club, fishing club, backyard adventure club and an “ultimate journey” science and math-based program.

“In the mix of it all, our over-arching goal is character development, so while having fun and sharing these enriching activities with kids, we also deliver prevention messages to kids to help them understand how important it is to be a good person, to get good grades, to be good to each other and to be respectful of their families and other adults in their lives,” Nielsen said.

It is also stressed that there is no bullying, no name calling and no one getting picked on while at the club.

“It can be a home away from home for kids,” Nielsen said.

Club hours for the summer are Monday through Thursday, noon-6 p.m. for juniors and noon-8 p.m. for teens; Fridays, noon-5 p.m. for juniors and noon-9 p.m. for teens; and Saturdays, 2-5 p.m. Annual membership dues are $6 per person or $10 per family. For more information, call the club at 356-0214.

Article Photos

Boys and Girls Club members, from left, Noelle Korpusik, Emry Zarins and Jesse VonFindel, and staff member and program coordinator Mike Zinke are prepared for the free lunches and snacks that were dropped off at the club Friday.

Summer youth camp being developed for Alpena County

June 1, 2008
Sean Harkins
The Alpena County Sheriff Department, in a partnership with the Alpena Boys and Girls Club and 26th Circuit Court Family Division, is putting on a summer Youth Academy.

The academy will run from June 16 until Aug. 1 and is open to any 13-17 year-olds interested.

Sheriff Deputy Joe Smith said the idea for the academy came about when a student spoke to Thunder Bay Junior High School Liaison Officer Erik Smith about their uncertainty in going out for the football team.

The two deputies talked it over and decided to put on the academy to help build kids confidence.

Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday the academy will meet at the Boys and Girls Club in Alpena from 8:30-10:30 a.m. and do physical activities.

Joe Smith said they will begin by doing physical fitness activities, and the second half will be team building exercises, such as playing floor hockey or other team sports.

“Basically what we’re looking for here is to get the kids off the couch,” Smith said.

Once the camp gets going, he said the instructors will gauge the interest of the kids to determine whether to invite guest speakers.

“We don’t want to bore them with having people come in and talk to them,” Smith said.

He said a veteran returning from the war in Iraq may volunteer some time to help, and if the kids ask questions and are interested in what he has to say, they may expand to include some other presentations.

While physical fitness is the focus of the academy, Smith said there may be some underlying benefits for law enforcement officers.

”(The academy will) just give them a different view of us than they’ve seen in the past,” he said.

The academy is being put on by volunteers and there is no cost to kids interested in participating, but enrollment is limited to the first 30 kids who sign up.

Smith said participants must have their own transportation to and from the academy.

Teen places high in state Boys & Girls Club competition

May 2, 2008
By DIANE SPEER, News Lifestyles Editor

In what is believed to be a first for the Boys and Girls Club of Alpena, a local member has placed in the Michigan Boys and Girls Club Youth of the Year competition.

Samantha Forintos, who just turned 15 and is a freshman at Alpena High School, took third place in the state-level competition held April 17-18 in Livonia. 

“We’ve never had anyone place this high at the state level,” said Boys and Girls Club of Alpena Director Susan Nielsen. “Very few people her age place at all because of the level of sophistication the judges are looking for. Alpena was definitely well represented.”

Forintos was eligible to participate after earlier this year being declared the local club’s Youth of the Year. The local organization is comprised of 2,400 members. For the state competition, Forintos went up against other local level winners from all across the state.

To compete, she had to give a speech on what the Boys and Girls Club means to her, go through an interview process with a panel of judges, and submit 10 letters of recommendation and two essays.

Nielsen said one of the aspects that makes Forintos stand out is that she truly believes in what she does at the club.

“She doesn’t just give lip service to the things she believes in,” Nielsen said. “She truly lives them in her life, and that came across very clearly to the judges.” 

While at the club, Forintos volunteers through the mentoring program called Club Bigs, packing food boxes for NEMCSA, offering babysitting services where needed and helping with landscaping and a variety of other Youth Volunteer Corps projects.

“She’s awesome,” said YVC Coordinator Angie Stoughton. “She’s a good kid who I can count on for anything. I can always call on Sam.”

Forintos enjoyed the two days she spent in Livonia getting to know the other contestants, and she counts the whole experience as more valuable than actually having taken third place. Announcement of the winners was made at a special banquet.

“It was a shock to hear my name called,” said Forintos, who is the daughter of Barry and Janet Forintos of Alpena. “I wasn’t thinking I would get it because I was going up against 18 and 19 years olds.”

As a young child, Forintos dealt with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, but she has never let that hold her back. Besides competing for the Boys and Girls Club honor, she also recently participated in the Optimist Oratorical Contest. She took first place at the local and regional levels and will be competing at the state level May 17 in East Lansing.

Article Photos

News Photo by Diane Speer
Fifteen-year-old Samantha Forintos, third place winn

Fifteen-year-old Samantha Forintos, third place winner in the statewide Youth of the Year competition for the Boys and Girls Club, gets a hug from Youth Volunteer Corps Coordinator Angie Stoughton.

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