When an adult advisor says of a group of high school students, “These kids are going to change the world,” it’s easy to write that off as hyperbole. That is, until you meet said students, the members of Highland High School’s Interact Club. Energetic, compassionate and sincerely interested in community involvement, the aptly named club with 92 members — grown from just ten or so a few years ago — is basically a Rotary Club at the high school level.
There are more than 12,000 Interact Clubs chartered by Rotary International in 133 countries. Membership gives students the chance to make a real difference in other people’s lives while having fun themselves. Each club carries out service projects that help both local and global communities. Students develop leadership skills, interact with community leaders and make international connections.
The Highland Interact Club is sponsored by the Highland Rotary Club. Rotarian Kate Jonietz is liaison between the two groups, and Highland High School English teacher AnnMarie Meisel is co-advisor to the club alongside social studies teacher John Manganiello.
At the Highland Rotary’s meeting on November 9, Town of Lloyd Supervisor Paul Hansut presented the Town of Lloyd Community Pride Award to the Highland Interact Club for demonstrating a sense of caring and helping others. The community service performed by the students is especially important to the town at a time when budgetary constraints cut into the services it can provide, he noted.
The town’s Community Pride Award was established at the beginning of Hansut’s tenure as supervisor in 2012. It has been given out in past years to Eagle Scout Ryan Wood, community advocates Donna Deeprose and Rafael Diaz, seven-year-old Ryan Hanley — for helping to save his mom’s life — and retired community members James Morse and Nat Borsina, who, according to Jonietz, are always available to lend a hand for small acts of civic pride.
Highland Interact Club members volunteer to help at all town events, including Halloween in the Hamlet, SpringFest and the Rotary’s WinterFest. New Paltz Times recently caught up with the students as they were decorating the former bank building in the hamlet for this weekend’s fifth annual “Light Up the Hamlet” holiday celebration on Friday, December 9. Interact Club members will be elves at the event, handing out candy while assisting Santa in keeping it all running smoothly.
“I really enjoy seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces,” says Dean Riley, a junior at the high school and co-president of the Interact Club. “I just really enjoy being involved in my community. It’s all about doing good, but it brings me happiness and joy, too, and I appreciate how it gives me a connection to my community that I wouldn’t otherwise have.”
When asked which club activities he finds most rewarding, Riley is hard-pressed to name a favorite. “I like the interaction with seniors in the community: they have all the experience and the wisdom! It’s cool to talk to them and I enjoy seeing the same people and knowing their names from meeting them at past events.” The Interact Club makes annual visits to the Castle Point campus of the VA, and sponsors an annual senior citizen breakfast for the town.
Kirti Shenoy, a senior at Highland High School and co-president of the club along with Riley, says she joined Interact as a freshman, excited to learn that there was a club at the school with a charitable focus. A young woman who also volunteers training dogs for the blind, Shenoy says she loves helping people out and will miss the club when she graduates. She has been president or co-president since her sophomore year. Shenoy names the Senior Citizen Prom as one of her favorite events the club sponsors each year, as well as the Queen of Hearts Charity Ball in winter. “It’s a great way to see the entire student body all together at one time,” she says. “For a few hours, everyone is involved.”
Kaitlyn Poluzzi is a 12th grade student at Highland High School and vice-president of the club. “I grew up in a family that was always involved with our church and community in Clintondale, so when I came to Highland, I wanted to be involved here,” she says. Indicating the room around us, abuzz with teens decorating for the upcoming town event, Poluzzi notes, “It’s nice to see all these kids here on a school night just to benefit someone else.”
The activities the Interact Club sponsors “build relationships and rapport” within the community, she adds. “Kids are underestimated, sometimes, so it’s good, I think, to show that teens can be involved in positive things.”
Poluzzi’s career plan is to become an oncologist. She names the club’s annual visit to the Ronald McDonald House in Albany as her favorite Interact Club activity (also high on the list for Shenoy and Riley).
The students go up on a bus to spend the day at Ronald McDonald House, where parents with hospitalized children can receive comfort and care themselves while remaining close by while their child has surgery. “We clean the house and cook a meal for everyone,” explains Riley. “Then when the parents come back from being with their children at the hospital they have dinner waiting for them.”
The other officers in the Interact Club are sophomore Carlie Relyea, club secretary; senior Sam Considine, treasurer; and senior Alexa Langseder, media representative. The officers of the club are all in different grades at school, explains Poluzzi, so that each class is equally represented.
The students fundraise to benefit local and international causes in a number of ways, from selling t-shirts or tickets to events to obtaining donations from local businesses and sponsoring runs and walks, like the recent Alzheimer’s Walk held on Walkway Over the Hudson.
In past years, money was raised for the worldwide ShelterBox initiative, in which emergency shelter and supplies are literally dropped into a disaster site, and they raised $2,500 to rebuild a school in Nepal. This year’s global recipient of their efforts is the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a non-governmental organization that responds to humanitarian crisis and helps people to rebuild their lives, with a focus on education and empowering women.
Locally, the Highland Interact Club supports the BackPack Program that provides a weekend supply of nutritious food to 40 children who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches during the school week but would go hungry over the weekend without assistance. And when their high school classmates Jamie Carlson and Sara Pironi were diagnosed with cancer last year, the club raised funds to help their families meet expenses, including $1,800 raised at the Queen of Hearts ball for the SaraStrong Foundation. Although Sara Pironi, sadly, did pass away, her family intends to offer an annual scholarship to a community-minded teen in her name, to which the Interact Club plans to help raise funds for.
The Highland Interact Club began at the high school in 2009 under the initiative of then-student Alicia Utter, according to Jonietz. While successful at first, club membership then dwindled a bit until it took off again in the school year of 2011-12. (Shenoy points out that membership now is ten times what it was then, when she joined as a freshman.) Riley says he thinks the club has grown simply because the other students see them at events having fun. “And I know that I always try to spread the word about Interact,” he says. “I enjoy it so much I want other people to have this much fun.”