Some teens go above and beyond
Main goal is to help those less fortunate
Among all the college bound, scholarly students, athletes, artists, school officers, volunteers, dancers and musicians in Pleasanton are some teens who immerse themselves in truly unique extracurricular activities. These new and different activities are certain to stand out on college applications, although this is not the reason the teens pursue them.
For example, three years ago, some Pleasanton students founded Just Dig It, a nonprofit organization that works with Meaningful Life International (MLI) to raise money for funding freshwater wells in Ghana.
It all started when these six teens -- Austin Ready, now 16; Blake Ready, 16; Eric Arellano, 16; Jenny Arellano, 13; Heather Fox, 14; and Kelly Fox, 15 -- discovered that 900 million people lack access to clean water and one child dies every 20 seconds due to a water-related disease. This inspired them to create Just Dig It in July 2010.
"To date, we have raised over $30,000 for clean water, giving new life to over 2,000 people," Eric said.
"Our motive is to help save lives of villagers dying of dehydration and waterborne diseases," Blake added. "After seeing the impact we were able to make early on, we were inspired to push on."
In the summer of 2011, the six Just Dig It co-founders visited Ghana. Eric said his proudest moment was when the chief of the village Wusuta-Sakakyare, where Just Dig It built its first well, announced that its people were no longer afflicted with water-related diseases.
They also visited other villages in Ghana where they observed firsthand the amount of filth in the drinking water, although the team lived in a gated community house in Tema, Ghana, outside the capital of Accra.
"We were in a nicer neighborhood, but going around the country is pretty shocking; it's extremely dirty, poor and crime-ridden," Blake said.
Though the team was shocked by living conditions in the villages, Eric noted, "While Ghana was the poorest place I've ever witnessed, the people were so joyful, much more so than the average American."
He said the trip changed his life by "opening my eyes to the world."
"I recognized that outside the safe and affluent bubble of suburban Pleasanton, and even America, millions of people live a life of poverty unfathomable to me," he explained.
"It gave me better appreciation for what I have and how blessed we are," he added.
The six raised money through bake sales, car washes, drawings, selling bracelets and collecting a multitude of donations. They acknowledge the Youth Ministries at Cornerstone Fellowship Church in Livermore for helping them achieve their goal. Paige Ready, Austin and Blake's mother, donated a portion of her paycheck for one year to provide enough money to fund a well. To support Just Dig It, go to justdigit.webs.com.
But these teens do not do the work for credit or for their college applications. Rather, they have a genuine desire to help people less fortunate than they are.
"It's definitely important to try to go out and help the community and do extracurricular activities because it not only helps your college application, but helps develop you as a person, too, and to develop life skills in clubs and projects as well as make friends," Blake said.
He had advice for anyone thinking of founding a charity.
"You should be genuine about your cause," he said.
"When deciding to participate in any activity, it is essential that the student recognizes his or her reasons," he said. "The main goal for anything should be for the enjoyment and development of the person and improvement of his or her community."
"My friends and I founded Just Dig It primarily to save the lives of those less fortunate than ourselves," he added.
"We didn't even have college on the mind when we started it," Austin pointed out.
They like to think of its benefit to their college applications as an "added bonus."
Shrita Pendekanti, a student at Amador Valley High School, also indulges in a unique extracurricular activity. Since 2002, she has been practicing an Indian form of dance called Kuchipudi that she learned from her mother.
"I dance because it gives me a way to retain my Indian culture while also serving as an expressive outlet," Shrita said. "Not only that, I love to perform and I think learning a fine art teaches a person to be more disciplined."
Last summer Shrita decided to embark on a new endeavor to use dance to help people in need and began to plan a benefit in India, where she has a lot of family who had never seen her dance.
During winter break, she performed for a charity called Sparsh, which is a hospice center in Banjara Hills, Hyderabad. Her grandfather helped to spread the word about the show and advertised through several newspaper articles, plus large billboards promoted the event. With all of these efforts, more than 800 people attended.
"We were able to raise $10,000 for the cause, and I plan to go back this summer and do more to help," said Shrita, who was ecstatic.
She recognizes that this will make for a fascinating college essay one day, but said that volunteer work is more than that.
"With the competition to get into a top college increasing by the year, I feel like a lot of kids are motivated to help for the wrong reasons," she said. "Charity work isn't supposed to be done for a reward because that's not charity."
"I'm not saying that you should do charity work and not use it for college applications or anything," she explained. "I just think that with kids being so focused on attaining volunteer hours, a lot of the times we forget to realize that volunteer work is so much more than that. I think that can keep kids from enjoying the blessed feeling that comes with helping another human being."
Simply put, these Pleasanton students do really fascinating stuff. And while the colleges they apply to will undoubtedly be impressed by what they've done, it is more important to these students that they are impacting the world in a positive way.
--Katie Lyness is a youth correspondent for the Pleasanton Weekly. She is a sophomore at Amador Valley High School.