LEOMINSTER -- Leadership, bonding with fellow students, and a sense of duty to the community -- these are among the traits that participation in sports helps to foster.
A select few area high school student-athletes got the opportunity to put those qualities to work on Thursday, when the Midland-Wachusett League student ambassadors and athletic directors took part in a day of community service at the Boys and Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster.
"These kids didn't hesitate and just jumped right in and did projects today," North Middlesex Athletic Director James Bunnell said. "It was an all-around wonderful day. It was a good opportunity for kids who have leadership qualities to display them. Experiences like these are the ones that the kids hopefully remember and learn from."
The student ambassador program gives two to three students each from local high schools the chance to represent their school's student-athletes with the league's governing structure. Students engage in leadership training, activities and also community service projects as part of their development as student leaders.
Twelve member schools sent students and staff, out of the 26 schools in the league, and in total around 40 people participated. Local schools represented included Fitchburg High, Oakmont Regional, Leominster High, Nashoba Regional, North Middlesex Regional and Gardner High.
Prior to teaching and becoming an athletic director, Bunnell volunteered for the Boys and Girls Club in Leominster. When the league was looking for a community service project, he reached out to his former colleagues and coordinated the day.
"Being part of the Boys and Girls Club for three years when I worked here, the kids just lit up when someone gave back and came to help out," Bunnell said. "For some of these kids, it's all they have, and to be able to give back is a great thing. Our student ambassadors are high school students giving back to other kids and helping someone who was in close age to them. "
Some of the projects included helping refurbish a volleyball court, maintaining some of the grounds, cleaning a shed, fixing bicycles, washing windows, and cleaning rooms.
"We split up into teams and divided and conquered," Fitchburg High junior Isabel Wilder said. "We picked weeds, cleaned tables and the gym, and we were able to get a lot done. It was a great environment where everyone worked together, supported each other and tried to achieve the same goal."
After their service, students ate hot dogs and hamburgers from Central Street deli and got some time to mix and mingle. The experience provided a unique opportunity where students had the chance to befriend athletes from opposing teams and forge friendships.
"It was really cool to meet the people I've been playing against, and even those I haven't been playing against," Oakmont junior Kate Magee said. "We have a lot of things in common and it was really fun."
In addition to the obvious benefit for the community, events like Thursday's can build important experience for college résumés.
"If you want to be a leader, you've got to give back to your community," Oakmont junior David Quaye said. "I've been on a few college tours, and most colleges talk about giving back to their community. Colleges look at applications to see if you volunteer, because if you do it in high school, you will do it in college."
Earlier in the academic year the ambassadors participated in a leadership day at the Special Olympics facility in Marlboro. They engaged in leadership discussions, team building, trust building exercises and lectures. The community service day was the second in a two-pronged approach to leadership development.
The Boys and Girls Club primarily serves youth from Leominster and Fitchburg, but it is open to all children in the region. It relies on a mostly volunteer workforce, where the focus is in the arts, science, technology, engineering and math.
The organization is looking for volunteers to run programming as well as more typical community service projects. On June 8 there will be a 5K run/walk to benefit the club at its Lindell Avenue site, and the club is looking for people to help administer the race. To volunteer, visit the club's website: http://www.bgcfl.org/.
"It was fantastic (to have the student ambassadors), there's always stuff that needs to be done here," Boys and Girls Club volunteer coordinator Rebecca Cyganiewicz said. "We have upward of 500 kids here every single day, the place gets messy, and we have a lot of programs going on. So any help we can get, we're very grateful for."