By Adina Ba

Stephanie Davis with students from the Bridgeport Lighthouse Afterschool Program

Stephanie Davis with students from the Bridgeport Lighthouse Afterschool Program

“Volunteering is not just an activity, it is a way of life,” says Stephanie Davis who started volunteering 10 years ago when she was only 6 years old. She has two cousins with autism, and this inspired her to start participating in walkathons and fundraising. To this date, she has raised over $30,000 for autism by making and selling “have a heart” pins and other products in her community and has been recognized by the U.N. for World Autism Day in 2008 for her personal advocacy efforts. She has since expanded her advocacy scope to include human rights issues and tutoring children locally in Bridgeport, CT.

What subject in school are you most passionate about?

I’m just starting the 11th grade, I don’t really have a favorite class, although I find biology to be interesting, and I love Spanish because I want to be able to spend time living in a different country when I’m older.

What do you see yourself doing as a long-term career?

I want to spend all the time I can exploring opportunities in the world that will help me find something I am interested in to spend my life doing. I want to do something I feel passionate about and that benefits other people. I want my career to be one that inspires or helps people in some way.

Share the story of how you got started in volunteering.

I was six years old when I started walking in walkathons for autism for my cousin David with my family. It was a few years older when I started volunteering with my mother taking care of children in Operation Hope in Bridgeport while their mothers searched for homes/jobs. I was in sixth grade when I started asking my mother every day to find me a volunteer job so I could help young children in need of education and tutoring. She finally found me one when I was 12 years old and I began volunteering weekly at Elias Howe Family Resource Center in Bridgeport, CT.

How many hours per month / what kind of volunteering do you do?

I spend about 2 hours every Wednesday (sometimes Thursdays as well) helping the Lighthouse Program Students in Bridgeport with their homework and giving them the one on one attention that they deserve. For the past four years I have been doing an annual fundraiser for these children at Cesar A Batalla Elementary School. When I was 13, I made my Bat Mitzvah project a mural painting for the school. The next year I did a winter clothing drive. For the past two years I’ve been doing a letter writing campaign to all of the Bridgeport businesses, raising money for scholarships for the students of The Lighthouse Summer Program. I am also team captain of my Autism Speaks team, “Curing Cousins,” inspired by my two autistic cousins. Since I was 9 I’ve been raising money to support autistic people by making and selling heart shaped pins. Now I involve young children in helping with this cause and advocating for autism awareness in their elementary schools, along with autism fundraisers I do with my friends. In my school I am also co-president of The STAND Club, Students Taking Action Now in Darfur. However we have expanded the club to help not only Darfur, but all of Sudan which is in dire need of aid and restoration. I am also Community Service Officer of the buildOn Club which provides community service opportunities for students.

What keeps you motivated in doing community service?

I am very passionate about the causes I am involved with. My desire to help and make a difference motivates me.

How has volunteering affected you?

Volunteering has definitely shaped the way I view the world. Knowing that the world can be a better place with the effort of every person being kind and caring about others is an amazing thing. I love spending my time doing humane things, especially when others get inspired to do the same.

Share an incredible experience you had through volunteering.

Every week when I enter my classroom I am knocked over by the door with the endearing hugs of the children. Leaving the room is always a struggle, but what the kids don’t know is that I don’t want to leave them even more than they don’t want me to. I’ll never forget the kids that I’ve connected with, helped, and grown to love so much.

What advice would you give to other youth about getting involved?

Everyone needs to find their place in the world by doing good, starting with their community. It is important for people to play their role in giving back to the community and making helping others a part of life. Reaching a hand out to someone in need opens doors that one could never imagine.

What would you say to someone who says it takes too much effort to volunteer?

If someone feels passionately about something and wants to make a difference or help out, then they should. If it means that much to you, then you will find the time. If there isn’t something specific that excites you, give anything a chance. You may be surprised how much you like it.

What benefits have you found in community service?

The feeling I get when I volunteer is my benefit. Just knowing that I have affected someone else’s life in a positive way is the best benefit I get.

What perspective have you gained that could be useful to a future job?

I know the volunteer work I’ve done will help me to have a positive and passionate outlook on any work I do.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Last summer, the summer of ’08, I was fortunate enough to go on an amazing trip to Costa Rica on a teen tour. I went with a group called “Global Works”. The program’s purpose is to allow teens to see the world while doing community service and learning the language of that country. For me, Costa Rica was one of the most memorable experiences of my life because of the connections I made with friends on the trip and the people I met in the town we lived in. We spent ten days living in a town called Parcelas where we got to stay with a Costa Rican family while helping out in the town. I learned how to communicate with people there speaking Spanish and surprised myself as to how well I could keep up in conversation. I still keep in touch with the people I met there and the people who joined me on this incredible journey. The people I met, the friends I made, and the experiences I went through on my Costa Rica adventure have all changed my life substantially. After living in the conditions in this developing country, I have grown a stronger appreciation for what I have in my own life. Also, I feel that this trip has shaped me into a happier, more outgoing person. I am so fortunate to have had such an amazing opportunity so early in my life, and hopefully one day I will make my way back to Parcelas!