Two Mt. Laurel students offer a different way to volunteer

Duo create year long service project through Student Scholars Program

From a young age, Moorestown Friends High School junior Yusuf Ansari was taught to dedicate time to others in need. Once he discovered a program from the nonprofit ONE Project, it became the perfect opportunity to take service to the next level.  

Ansari and Lenape High School sophomore Eva Drakes were both accepted into the Student Scholars Program through the nonprofit, based in Robbinsville. They were cited for their excellent work in volunteerism and bringing people from different backgrounds together to address social needs. 

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“I just applied,” Ansari recalled. “I didn’t really think much of it, but then I actually got in, and I was absolutely excited about that.”

The Student Scholars Program was founded in 2014 to network new leaders who are deeply invested in giving back to the community. The directors of the program provide students with resources, leadership training and support during the completion of their service project, according to Rajnarind Kaur, co-director of Student Involvement.

This year, three sophomores and two juniors from Mercer, Middlesex and Burlington County high schools were selected through the application process to be a part of the 2021 program.

On top of requiring applicants to hand in a letter of recommendation and obtain a minimum GPA of 2.5, they are asked to manage a service project where they devise a service plan to unite the community and bring awareness to issues facing a wider audience. 

When Ansari started to put his project together, he made it his mission to create videos that spark an interest in coding and programming. 

“I started a club at my school to basically offer a free tutoring service, where I taught other students how to code,” Ansari explained. “That’s what led into my current project, which is making videos to teach others how to code.”

While coding is not a common form of volunteer work, Ansari realized coding classes are not widely offered at schools, and if they are, the material can be difficult for students to comprehend. His goal was to create an easy and interactive way to execute a coding curriculum for middle-school students.

Each of Ansari’s videos start with a basic introduction in programming for generic and historic information. After he starts to use specific terminology, viewers can familiarize themselves with the python language used for coding. 

“I try to make my videos fun and entertaining, and I try to explain it (coding) in ways that would be beneficial for sixth or seventh grade students,” Ansari noted. “I remember when I was in that spot, it was just so hard for me to learn this stuff.”

One obstacle Ansari faced while putting his project together was familiarizing himself with the proper editing techniques for audio and video.  

“Making these videos is very time-consuming,” he said. “When I first started, I had to film, and then I had to teach myself how to edit videos, which was a whole process itself. Then, I had to learn how to export those videos.”

Before his project, Ansari was involved with multiple volunteer groups, including a free health clinic and Community South Jersey and Philadelphia, a nonprofit that promotes civic engagement and greater cross-cultural understanding through service events.   

“Post COVID, I founded a local organization called Serving Communities in South Jersey,” Ansari said. “I basically teamed up with a bunch of friends and organized meal kits, care packages, and delivered stuff to people within our own high school and community.”

Drakes’ community service also began in her early youth; she was 8 when she started volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House. At 9, she was part of the South Jersey Food Bank.

Based on her previous history, Drakes decided to do her ONE Project on the Ronald McDonald House, and this year, she was accepted into the Teen Advisory Council through that organization.

“So far, since we started in January, I raised $100 via GoFundMe,” Drakes offered. “The next step for my project, I’ve partnered with Councilwoman [Fozia Janjua] of Mt. Laurel and her (community service organization), which is Community SJP (South Jersey/Philadelphia).” 

While working on their projects, Drakes and Ansari were required to attend a meeting every two weeks, go through an outline of project progression and meet with mentors who helped guide them through any obstacles or offer resources, said Danielle Liegl, co-director of student involvement.

“Once a month, we have a speaker come talk to students; they listen to the students,” she added. “[The speakers] provide whatever thoughts they have, and the students can present to them as well.”

The speakers are meant to provide life-building lessons by sharing stories of their own experiences. 

Besides mentors and guest-speaker conferences, the directors hold leadership meetings once every two weeks with a range of leaders.

“We supply them with guidance, we supply them each with a mentor, and then at the end of the year, they are given a $500 scholarship for completing their community-service project,” Liegl said.

Aside from receiving the scholarship money, Drakes and Ansari reshaped their definitions of service, and the program led to another level of volunteering they hope to continue in the future.

Applicants interested in next year’s Student Scholars Program should email https://www.oneprojectnj.org/contact. 

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