Throughout its history, Oak Park River Forest High School has encouraged students to engage in community service through clubs and activities including Tau Gamma, Best Buddies, Huskie Helpers, and the annual Empty Bowls event. In addition, many students participate in service projects through their churches and local nonprofit organizations. This year, in celebration of its 150th anniversary, the school is launching the Sesquicentennial Challenge by rallying current and former students, as well as parents and Huskie supporters, to log 150,000 hours of community service before June 30, 2024.
The following OPRFHS alumni were transformed by their service experiences as teens and continue to make a significant difference in their own communities and around the world. While at OPRFHS, Katlyn Keller, Class of 2007, volunteered with the Infant Welfare Society and participated in a variety of service activities through her church, including construction projects with Habitat for Humanity and a camp for refugee children. A year after graduating, she joined the Peace Corps in Guinea, teaching English to high school students and leading a women’s group. She learned Malinke, the native Guinean language, to communicate with women, many of whom drop out of school as adolescents to get married and have children.
“I always knew service would be a part of my life. I had been interested in the Peace Corps since I was a kid and I wanted to go someplace off the beaten path,” Keller said. “I thought it would be a good way to see the world while helping others.”
Keller has spent most of her career working for cause-related nonprofits, including the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and Haven House in St. Louis. She moved back to Chicago this summer to take a development position with the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School.
Javin Peterson, Class of 1995 and a 2013 Tradition of Excellence Award recipient, was a natural leader and athlete at OPRFHS, serving as a member of the senior class council and captain of the boys gymnastics team. After graduating, he enrolled in the Air Force Academy and was a pilot in the Air Force for 20 years, earning a Meritorious Service Medal and Afghanistan and Iraq campaign medals. He also flew Air Force Two, shuttling senior-level White House administrators to their destinations.
Since retiring from military service, Peterson has seamlessly transitioned to community service. Disturbed by the political posturing surrounding affordable healthcare during President Obama’s administration, Peterson decided to tackle the issue himself.
Peterson got a certificate in health administration and, in 2018, launched Shepherd’s Gate Health in Jacksonville, FL. The nonprofit organization, which is now based in Charlotte, NC, works with community stakeholders to provide preventive healthcare solutions for the underserved.
“OPRF propelled students to discover what they wanted to do by providing opportunities for us to interact across what might be considered boundaries—we had shared experiences even if we came from different backgrounds. And the Oak Park community was the incubator that helped us fulfill our dreams,” Peterson said.
Julie Kudlacz participated in the national Appalachian Service Project (ASP) all four years of high school. Over the past 20 years, hundreds of OPRFHS students have joined the week-long summer service trip, typically through local churches. While in Appalachia, they repair homes and engage with local residents. Kudlacz found the experience so transformative that she now co-leads Ascension Church’s ASP trips with her older sister, Katie, also an OPRFHS graduate.
“It’s so much more than a week doing home repairs. It’s the chance to give teens a new experience that takes them out of their comfort zone, unplug from their phones and see what the world is like outside our bubble. It’s easy to think that we keep going on these trips to give back to those in need, but we get just as much out of it as what we are giving them. I come home every year knowing how blessed I am,” Kudlacz said
Mike Carmody, Class of 2000, co-founded Opportunity Knocks (OK) in 2010 to provide developmentally disabled young adults with more options after the age of 22. He had a personal reason for starting the organization—he grew up with a brother, John, with Down Syndrome who was aging out of the high school’s transitional education program. OK was, and still is, a family affair, including his parents and three other brothers, Phil, Colin and Chuck, all of whom are OPRFHS graduates.
Before co-founding OK, Carmody taught in the high school’s special education department, helped with Special Olympics, and coached the basketball and soccer teams. In 2007, He organized a softball tournament to honor his friend Kathy Garrigan, a fellow OPRFHS graduate who died while serving with the AmeriCorps in Alaska. The tournament was a huge success and has become OK’s biggest annual fundraiser.
OK now provides recreational programming and life skills training five days a week to 20 to 40 participants, referred to as Warriors. The organization also includes a social enterprise, providing farm-to-jar pickles to local restaurants, and a catering operation. Last year, the OPRFHS Alumni Association provided OK with $10,000, the association’s largest grant in history.
“Opportunity Knocks was the best way for me to provide our Warriors with access to our community in ways that they might otherwise not have. It’s really the best of all worlds for me—I get to teach our Warriors in a way that stretches their limits every day,” Carmody said.
Adam Wallace and his wife Valentina Segovia, both Class of 2009, spent several years after college volunteering as emergency medical technicians with Floating Doctors, a nonprofit that provides healthcare to underserved communities in rural Panama. In 2015, Wallace joined the Air Force and served as an instructor with the rigorous Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) program.
“We taught Air Corps crews how to survive in brutal conditions, including in the desert, the Arctic and oceans. And we taught them how to resist becoming a tool of the bad guys if they were captured,” Wallace said.
Wallace is now pursuing his medical degree at the University of Washington while Segovia is getting her doctorate of nursing practice at Johns Hopkins University. He recently received a prestigious Pat Tillman Scholarship, awarded to remarkable active-duty service members, veterans and spouses committed to strengthening their communities.
“OPRFHS set a high standard and instilled in us the importance of doing something cool with our lives. The teachers and administration focused on preparing us to make our mark in the world. We knew that, with so many notable alumni, we were walking in some big footsteps,” Wallace said.