What began as a graduation requirement became a lifelong commitment to service for Sacred Heart Academy senior Sam Powell. While volunteering at a Christmas outreach event in eighth grade, something clicked.
The outreach event was part of his work with the Mount Pleasant Area Community Foundation’s Youth Advisory Committee (YAC), a group of young people who represent each school in Isabella County and meet to review grant applications, receive leadership and philanthropy training and plan community service projects.
In addition to YAC and various smaller service projects, Sam volunteers as a Vacation Bible School leader at Sacred Heart Parish and at SpringHill Camp, a Christian kids’ summer camp.
“I have really, really enjoyed just building those relationships with the kids and trying to imagine when I was that kid, what I was going through, and how that smile from an older kid just could absolutely change my day— because I remember that happening for me,” he said.
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Discovering service in Scripture
Sam’s heart for service is inspired by his parents Rob and Emma, who both work in the nonprofit sector and have sought to raise Sam and their daughter Marilyn with the same commitment. Their Catholic faith also played a major role in teaching Sam the value of helping others.
His eighth-grade theology teacher, Steve Sacco, tracked students’ service hours and helped Sam draw a clear connection between his Catholic faith and service. Lee Ann Puhlman, a theology teacher for Sacred Heart Academy’s secondary grades, also helped him continue to understand the importance of the two.
"(Mrs. Puhlman) guided the class through religious-based discussion on real world events and taught how faith is so much more than time and words but how it is also action. She made me desire to take my own faith and serve my community,” he said.
Sam’s mother, Emma, believes that having that dedicated class time to discuss and reflect on big questions, such as the struggles people face daily, helped Sam to hear the call to serve others.
“We're thankful as parents that (students) are being asked to consider those questions in regard to Scripture as well,” she said.
As Sam tried to discern God’s will, he discovered the answer in Scripture.
“As I started looking at my Bible, there was a clear example of service,” he said. “Service can directly correlate to what God wants from us. I recognize that I am incredibly lucky and incredibly blessed, and (I’m) just trying to use some of that fortune for the betterment of others.”
This emphasis on service is firmly rooted in the Faith.
“Service is vital to living our Catholic Christian faith in a real and tangible way,” said his teacher Lee Ann. “We need to recognize that we are not isolated on our faith journey; we journey together. We want what is best for everyone, and that involves doing the work.”
About experiences, not hours
By November 2022, Sam had accumulated 350 service hours and expects to graduate with more than 400 hours. Sacred Heart Academy begins tracking service hours in seventh grade, and the school provides numerous opportunities for students to reach the required 100 hours.
“To see (students) take pleasure in volunteering is such a joy as a parent,” Emma said. “It becomes less about the hours and more about the experiences of them volunteering and serving our community. It's about the legacy they're leaving.”
Each high school in the Diocese of Saginaw requires a set number of service hours to graduate, and each school emphasizes the importance of service, something Sam sees as especially valuable.
That's really cool when you go to a school that so strongly promotes this idea of stewardship and sacrifice and service,” he said. “It's been so amazing to grow with like-minded peers, and to ... create strong friendships that I know are with good people who are trying to do good things.”
Sam has also benefited from the opportunity to be a part of the school’s varsity basketball, golf and quiz bowl teams, National Honor Society, Science Olympiad and the pre-med club. He also tutors younger students.
“I have grown as a leader as I have faced challenges head-on, solved real-world problems and watched as kids have both grown closer to God and excelled in their academic efforts,” he said.
Domino effect for good
Sam explains that at Sacred Heart Academy, students learn about not only the love of God, but also the law of God— that God desires us to use our gifts and talents to help others rather than focusing on ourselves. He speaks of the “domino effect,” how a small action can ripple out to enact great change.
“That lesson, the domino effect, and how one good action can inspire someone else to do a good action and overall create a slightly better world has been a really powerful lesson that Sacred Heart has taught me,” he said.
Everyone can prioritize making time for service, he said.
"If (someone) took that moment to go to a service project for two hours, the second they recognize the impact they just had on another human being, I think it would change their whole outlook on service as a whole,” he said.
“Sam is demonstrating that young people can do wonderful things when faith is put into action,” said Lee Ann, the teacher.
Deeply impacted by the positive difference service
can make in others’ lives,
Sam plans to pursue a medical track in college and hopes to be able to volunteer as a doctor someday.
“I really just want to continue that foundation of service, and ... eventually be a part of boards and nonprofits I strongly believe in and become a donor of organizations that I think are doing great things,” he said. “I know that this concept of community service will always be a part of my life in one way or another.”