Lenni Billberg wanted to do something that mattered for a lot of people.
A Vermillion High School Social Studies teacher, Billberg knew in her heart that to help others in her community was something she had to do.
So after figuring out how she would go about it, Billberg launched the Tanager Volunteer Day with the help of school administration and community support.
Six years later it appears to be quite the success.
“This is my baby and my dream to start this,” Billberg said. “I am really a passionate person about volunteering. I have developed so many connections in town over the years and I asked the principal if we could do this and he said yes. It’s gotten bigger and bigger and bigger over the years.”
This Wednesday, the city of Vermillion will once again be under the spell cast by 365 Tanager, high school students, who will embark at 8:45 a.m. for a day of all types of assistance for those who need it and/or just appreciate it.
“They volunteer for anything you can imagine,” Billberg said. “From helping homebound people, from helping churches, from helping the parks, to helping elementary schools. Our list is really long.”
Most of the students are taken by bus to various locations to begin their volunteering while some may walk to their assignment. They can go out as far as the countryside or just help a local park blocks from the high school.
“It was a lot of fun last year,” sophomore Riley Peters said. “We went to Prentis Park and had to cut down tree limbs. Then we had to clean up the field house on the field.
“It’s a good way to give back to the community. My friends really liked it just being out helping. It makes you feel like you have grown up a lot. You aren’t in school. You are out doing something to help people.”
During their volunteer excursions, students will get to take a lunch break, sponsored by the City of Vermillion Chamber and Development Company and then get right back at it.
"Tanager Volunteer Day is a fantastic example of a group of people coming together, with the organized effort to make a difference in people's lives, in one single day,” Nate Welch, executive director for the Vermillion Chamber and Development Company, said. “The other great thing about it is that it is done by mostly kids in the community. To watch them learn - hands on - how they have the power to make a difference in people's lives, in only a day is a lesson they'll hopefully take with them for years."
Volunteer Day’s importance is something not lost on the town, according to Billberg.
“The community each year can’t get enough and can’t thank us enough,” she said. “We do all kinds of different things and it’s more rewarding for our kids because they can see what they can do and that they can make a difference.
“Some of them cried because they were able to help people in that way.”
The program is similar to one – the AWOL program – at the University of South Dakota. That program’s mantra states that its mission is to “immerse students in transformational service-learning experiences to expose them to diverse situations, people and perspectives, and empower them to become life-long agents of social change.”
Billberg said that volunteer programs like these are growing nationwide.
“We know it’s growing across campuses across the country,” Billberg said and added that her students can’t get enough of the helping aspect. “We have our kids volunteering at the library or at the welcome tables.
“Some of our kids are in AWOL because they ask ‘what can I do next?’”
It can also teach a lesson in humility.
“It was a fun way to get involved in the community and it feels good that were able to help people,” sophomore Morgan Herbster said. “Last year I helped at Faith Fellowship Church and we went and organized clothes for families that can’t afford clothing for their younger kids and that makes you grateful for what you have.”