Paying it forward to make it count
4,200 combined hours spent volunteering
1,358 students enrolled at Riverwatch
30 school buses
Packages of Ramen soup, apple sauce, canned beans and other non-perishable items lay scattered in piles at The Exchange at The Collection at Forsyth as Riverwatch Middle School students functioned as a human conveyer belt around the food.
The 90 or so middle schoolers each carried a burlap bag, placing one or two of each dry good into their sack, packaging meals for the nonprofit Meals by Grace to distribute to struggling Forsyth County residents during a critical time when students are not provided meals during school.
“Meals by Grace always struggles to have [enough food] around spring break, so students are helping package meals for them,” said Juli Ratinaud, co-president of Riverwatch’s PTSA. “A lot of families are in the giving mindset during the holidays, but you don’t realize how critical [it is] during spring break and the summer months.”
Instead of attending classes Tuesday, Riverwatch students, teachers and administrators spent the day “paying it forward” at 23 locations across the county, offering their services to local nonprofits and other Forsyth charities.
About 1,400 participants volunteered, spending roughly three hours at places such as The Exchange, the Humane Society of Forsyth County, No Longer Bound, SAAFT, The Place of Forsyth County and others.
Ratinaud, who helped organize the service day, said the idea first came from a Riverwatch mom, Cheryl Cunningham, who participated in a similar event last year at Johns Creek Elementary School with her son’s fifth grade class.
“It went so well there last year that she just sat us down and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be so great if we could do that here?’” Ratinaud said. “Fourteen-hundred people – think of the power of that.”
After developing a plan, Ratinaud said Cunningham along with herself and others approached Riverwatch’s Principal, Kathy Carpenter, who she said was immediately enthusiastic about the idea.
“She was in this and on board from the beginning,” Ratinaud said. “We thought [with] the sheer number of hands we could have a powerful impact in the community.”
Sixth-grader Ashley Bolen, who volunteered at The Exchange, said she recognized the impact her service had.
“I love the fact that we get to give back to people in our [community] – they could be a neighbor of ours,” she said. “We’re helping them [by] making life better and giving them hope for the future.
“There are a lot of people in this world who don’t have as much as you because something went wrong or they’re not [doing well] because they have an illness, so we need to help those people. We’re fortunate enough to have that and we need to give back to everyone.”
Ratinaud said part of what she found so special about the day was the variety of ways students could volunteer.
“That’s what’s so cool about this,” she said. “It was everything from picking up trash to going to senior centers and playing cards to performing for residents. There were so many different facets to how we were able to help at the locations.
“When I saw the look on kids’ faces when the director of the co-op [food bank they delivered to] explained how they serviced the community, that really put it in perspective for the kids. They weren’t just labeling green beans; they were understanding that the food was going to help people during spring break. The kids just had an energy about them, wanting to help.”
Though Carpenter is leaving at the end of the school year to become the district’s director of information systems, Ratinaud said Assistant Principal Amanda Thrower is already set on making the service day a tradition.
“Our assistant principal already suggested kicking this off at the beginning of the year, in the fall, and letting families know this was a huge success,” she said. “I think it’ll be a fantastic effort going forward and the idea is to make it bigger and better next time.”