Merced students build character by helping others

dyawger@mercedsunstar.comApril 17, 2013 

— High school students and third-graders at a Merced elementary school are teaming up to assist the homeless, and are learning important lessons as they practice their benevolence.

The Character in Action Team from Independence and Yosemite high schools is working with Chenoweth Elementary School students to plan, prepare and serve lunch and dinner at the D Street homeless shelter, said Susan Mahacek, the Character Counts lead teacher at Independence High.

"The character word of the month is kindness," Mahacek said. "This is a way to put character words into action."

The 15 student members of the Character in Action Team have prepared meals for the homeless at the East Campus Educational Center; the 116 third-graders from four classes at Chenoweth School spent several afternoons decorating lunch sacks to be given to the homeless.

Susan Gaestel, a third-grade teacher at Chenoweth, said the school is a caring community.

For example, she said, students wrote letters to veterans and participated in other philanthropic outreach even before the Merced City School District embraced the Character Counts program several years ago.

MacKenzie Wren, a freshman at Independence High School, said being involved with this group gives her something productive and helpful to do for her community.

"Things don't get fixed by themselves," Wren said. "This is something simple that I can do to help my community. It also makes me a better person."

Gaestel said she is looking for more ways to connect students with worthwhile causes, such as when Chenoweth students sent New Year's cards to residents of local convalescent homes.

Mahacek said she enjoys providing opportunities for young people to practice problem-solving skills, develop planning skills, work as a team and have a positive effect on their community.

Marley Williams, a senior at Independence High, said she loves going out into the community to work with school-age children.

"I want to give back," Williams said. "Doing this also gives me an opportunity to be in a group of peers with similar values. I love being involved and active."

Mahacek said the Character in Action Team visits after-school programs to promote literacy and character education. In visiting Chenoweth Elementary, the students knew it would be fun to work with the kids there on the feeding project.

Mahacek said she was pleased to see how many community groups, families and individuals volunteer to provide food for the D Street shelter on a regular basis.

Kaleb Montgomery, a senior at Yosemite High, also is part of the Character in Action Team. He believes he learns important life and career skills by meeting and working with adults and youth.

"It's important to give, not only receive," Montgomery said. "It makes Merced a better place when people come together as volunteers."

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or

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