Tess Trinka is a rising senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School who leads the growing and popular social/service club called "Hephzibah Huskies."
She and 50-plus high-schoolers are voluntarily learning how important service to others is by taking the time to understand what life is like for the foster kids who reside at Hephzibah's group home in Oak Park. Some of the foster kids there have lost their parents through addiction, chronic illness, or instability. Others have experienced the pain of neglect, or physical and sexual abuse.
Some have endured bouncing from foster home to foster home until they landed here.
"We became an official club in the fall of 2012, but we did it unofficially for two full years prior to that, usually meeting in the hallways of OPRF," says Molly Philosophos, Hephzibah's director of development.
Everything that gets big starts out small.
"In the club," says Trinka, an active teen, athlete, member of the Huskie Athletic Council, and musician in the school orchestra, "initially it was mostly friends of my older brother's [Luke] and my friends who heard about what we were doing and were interested in getting involved with Hephzibah Children's Association. So it wasn't a ton of kids at first. But last year, when I technically took over, we actually had between 50 and 70 kids, so Hephzibah Huskies has really kind of exploded, which is really awesome."
Giving back and then some
Typical of high-schoolers, jokes Mary Anne Brown, Hephzibah's executive director, one of the first things they did was tell her how to run the show.
"What I learned is that there are new things to learn out there, and these kids do have a handle on it," Brown says.
The Hephzibah Huskies take the children to OPRF football and basketball games, plan Hephzibah Group Home's end-of-the-year rodeo, and, via smaller leadership groups, do fundraisers for the agency.
In addition, they often pitch in at Hephzibah's after-school daycare program, which always needs volunteers, and as a club, they also help out at the high school's daycare program, Brown says.
"What is really exciting about this club from the executive point of view is that Hephzibah has been here 100 years. We want it here another 100 years," Brown says. "And if we can get young kids into the groove of helping nonprofits so that they begin to think of doing that as part of their daily life, this is the way Hephzibah will continue."
Others are noticing as well. President Trinka says her extracurricular club received recognition from the Community Foundation of Oak Park-River Forest, which "is a very good thing," she says.
"In this group, and for these high-schoolers, it's not about what they have," Brown says. "It's not about how they dress. It's all about what they can give to these foster kids, and so there is no stoppage at that. You don't have to be a certain person to be in the group. You just have to be willing to give time to kids."