ATWATER -- There's a group at Buhach Colony High School that takes "service beyond self" to a whole new level.
The Community Counts Club is a 130-student organization formed last December that performs a wide variety of tasks to make people's lives better, from pre-schoolers to the elderly.
Angelica Ayala, 16, a junior, is president of the group, co-founded by her twin sister, Bella. Angelica Ayala said she came to realize there is power in numbers and her involvement proves youth can have an impact on the lives of others.
"It makes me feel like I'm making a difference," Angelica Ayala said. "It gives me purpose."
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Social science teacher Michelle Bliss is the Community Counts Club adviser. She receives one or two calls every day from someone seeking help. "Our philosophy is we service others," Bliss said. "It's not about us; it's about others. There are a wide range of things we do. As a community service club, when people ask, we answer the call. There is always something the students can do."
Community Counts Club is an outgrowth of the Merced Union High School District's "Character Counts" program where six pillars of character -- trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship -- are stressed at district campuses.
Bella Ayala said many young people haven't realized they have the power to change problems they see, such as selfishness, materialism and unequal distribution of resources. "We value leadership by example," Bella Ayala said. "We are learning how to be compassionate; we all have to stick together for the sake of humanity."
Community Counts Club members help elderly patients at Anberry Rehabilitation Hospital and also work with Head Start students at the Merced County Fairgrounds. They are raising funds to provide a $500 college scholarship for a graduating Buhach Colony senior and made donations for the World Vision and American Red Cross relief efforts.
The group also donated to the Atwater Police Activities League and group members baby-sit so adults can take part in a parent empowerment program at UC Merced.
Buhach Colony Principal Stacy McAfee said the school is seeing a reduction in disciplinary incidents. She hopes what club members are espousing will be carried forth into the community and will be something that stays embedded with them. "It's evident the word is getting out," McAfee said, "that we need to give back. Students are truly taking pride in the campus and that's powerful."
Julie Cook, Buhach Colony teacher-librarian and Character Counts lead teacher, said gestures of kindness typically go unnoticed. Character is defined, she added, as doing the right thing when no one is looking.
Acts of kindness can include picking up garbage around campus, helping a fellow student with his locker or carrying a heavy load for someone else, McAfee said.
Club secretary Emily Williamson, a junior, enjoys the satisfaction of seeing smiles on children's faces. She said students may want to help out in the community but aren't sure how to do it. "It's a great feeling you don't get anywhere else," Williamson said.
McAfee said the impetus for the Community Counts Club came from the students, not adults. It's up to the school leadership to give the students power to accomplish their goals.
These advancements would not have been possible five to 10 years ago, she added.
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at 385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.