Angels among us; Teens earn their wings with charitable youth mentoring project

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Melvindale High School senior Miki Hernandez (left), third-grader Jazmin Gonzalez, third-grader Keshawn Taylor, and senior Sonia Hernandez enjoy their lunch after shopping with their charges. The high school girls are cousins.

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Elementary and high school students enjoy lunch after shopping.

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Misti Sensabaugh (right), a senior, shops with Shelbie Boutin, a 7-year-old second grader.

Sunday Times Newspapers

MELVINDALE – The Angel Project has striven to keep pace with the community’s fluctuating economic needs, and organizers chalked up another success last week.

Now its 17th year, the Melvindale-Northern Allen Park School District’s annual effort puts money for Christmas gifts in the hands of selected younger students, who then can shop for gifts for gifts for themselves or their families. It also pairs them with teen mentors, who take guide their shopping sprees.

The mentors help the younger students to budget their money, avoid becoming overwhelmed with choices and to negotiate store checkouts. The teens wrap the gifts at the end of the day and deliver them to the children’s houses, which lets them extend their holiday good cheer to their young partners’ families.

This year’s Angel Project has raised at least $12,000, and donations still are coming in, organizers say. Money comes from corporate and district staff donations, along with freewill offerings gathered at sporting events and other public functions.

School staff members once again selected children from Rogers and Allendale elementary schools to join teen mentors from Melvindale High School. Rogers houses kindergarten through first-graders, while Allendale is home to second- through fifth-graders, and adults select about 25 students per grade from each school to take part in the program.

On Tuesday, seven school buses carrying 167 children for a stop at Wal-Mart, 7555 N. Telegraph in Taylor, followed by a luncheon at the Old Country Buffet, 7838 S. Telegraph, also in Taylor.

The children, unaccustomed to such purchasing power, chose gifts for their loved ones without any prompting, delighting in the rare opportunity to spend money on their family members and further spread the holiday cheer.

This week, 42 middle school students identified as facing family economic challenges will have a similar seasonal shopping experience.

Yvonne Kollmorgen, executive secretary to Mayor Valerie Cadez, said one little girl spent her money buying cereal and other food.

Wal-Mart employees, touched by the girl’s unselfishness, gave her a bicycle. Kollmorgen saw another child buying towels and washcloths for their family.

Rick Morley, Mel-NAP director of operations, and high school drama teacher Barbara E. Smith, decided 10 years ago to let the youths pick out their own
“It’s been fun to watch it over the years,” said Smith, “(with the) touching and funny moments.”

Gary Smith, her husband, printed 170 T-shirts, which the teen volunteers then wore to identify them as volunteers throughout the event.

Michael Long, Home Town’s general manager, kept an eye on the mass of diners traveling through the food tables and the eating area, identifying choke points and shortfalls and issuing orders to correct things quickly.

“Typically, we don’t have 300 people arrive at the same time.” he said.

The Angel Project paid a discounted flat fee for the attendees, who feasted on a “kid-friendly menu” of macaroni and cheese, french fries, pizza, corn, baked beans and fried chicken.

“They don’t usually eat broccoli and spinach,” he said.
Jerry Stopper, a Clawson businessman who eats at the restaurant often, was pleased by what he observed.

“These kids are marvelous,” he said. “The interrelationships create a good bonding.”

Kollmorgen agreed.

“There are a lot of kids here who don’t have an older brother or sister, and they love the attention,” he said. “It encourages the high school students to set an example. It instills pride in them.”

Senior Misti Sensabaugh mentored Shelbie Boutin, a 7-year-old second-grader.

“It was really fun,” Misti said. “My kid wanted everything! She got something for everyone in her family.”

Asked about the best thing that happened that day, 9-year-old Andrea Ortiz replied, “Going shopping!”