Fallen leaves have kept a group of teenager from St. Thomas Aquinas high school busier than most of us this week.
It’s not their yards that are especially big. It’s their hearts.
Teacher Susan Dillingham has led her students — 14- to 18-year-olds — in cleaning up the yards of people who can’t take care of the work the themselves as part of the Extreme Yard Rakeover since the event’s inception in 2008. Every November, Jewish Family Services and Shepherd’s Center Central recruits volunteers for the work. This year 51 teams — more than 450 children and adults — have signed up to rake about 100 yards.
Dillingham, who teaches sophomore English at Aquinas, doesn’t have trouble finding volunteers. About 15 to 20 kids usually sign up as a service project through the school’s Key club, organizing into teams that rake yards each day after school.
“It’s one of their favorite projects, and mine too,” Dillingham said. “They began asking in September, ‘When are we going to start raking?’ ”
Her students made a good impression on Jimmie Jean Zitta when they raked the 73-year-old woman’s Overland Park yard earlier this week.
“They had their rakes and bags and worked really hard. They were so pleasant and polite,” Zitta said.
Volunteers come from all over once organizers start recruiting people through synagogues, churches, schools and service organizations in August, said SueAnn Strom, administrative coordinator for Extreme Yard Rakeover. Residents who get help are at least 65 years old and are paired with teams who do the work they can’t do or afford to have done on their own.
Martha Corder, 82, has lived in the same Overland Park home for 51 years and first turned to Extreme Yard Rakeover last year. She has a lot of big trees that blanket her yard in leaves every autumn.
“The people who raked my yard were so nice, just lovely people,” she said.
The program offers more than just clean yards. Some residents also get warm memories from the volunteers.
“One year I had a family with four children,” said Charlene Hecht, 83, of Overland Park. “They raked the leaves into a big pile and the kids jumped on it like old times.”
Robert Fishman, 78, had students cleaning his Overland Park yard this year.
“They did a great job and were awful nice people. I enjoyed having them,” Fishman said.
Jennifer Johnson and Cindy Huston are among the rakers this year.
“One lady whose yard we raked was in her 70s, and not very well. There was no way she could do it and she couldn’t afford to hire anyone. She was so appreciative. It made us feel good,” Huston said.
Matt Young, 41, of Prairie Village, said he volunteered because it’s a good way to give back to the community.
“It’s helping people who need help. We all have parents and grandparents who don’t get around like they used to. The people we’re helping are very appreciative which makes us feel good.”