PHOENIX — There is no question that as the school year came to its typical ending months everything has been different. For the first time in decades many end-of-year activities, including concerts and award ceremonies of all kinds, will not be happening. That reality left a sadness behind for students and communities eager to celebrate the achievements due in tribute.
As they have always done, the Phoenix Community and Youth Council was moving forward early in the year towards their annual Presidential Service awards dinner held each year in May. When school and activities were shut down for the remainder of the year, this group, like others, began to look for ways to continue such achievement traditions. Although it might look different, they felt they could still encourage students through the process of organizing four years of community service and applying for both gold and silver awards and the prestigious Youth of the Year award. Students responded, allowing the council to authenticate service and consider which students qualified, then announce the names of Phoenix students who had.
Community service activities and hours accumulate as students move through high school, with the many opportunities provided to step up and lead through a range of clubs, student government, performances, sports teams and competitions. Some students, committed to that heart of service, even develop and design their own opportunities to give to others. As their service soars, many adults around them take notice, noting the stars who sparkle and shine above everything they explore. It is those students who stand out as possible Phoenix Youth of the Year — and are then chosen by the Community and Youth Council to carry the honor high.
Students who accumulate 300 or more hours of service in high school qualify for the Silver Presidential Service award. This year Noah Gordon, Hailey Goudy, Alivia Lamphere, Joshua Stafford, Liam Sweeney and Sophia Trinca achieved that silver award level. It is 500 hours or more that qualifies students for the gold level award. They include Brielle DeRoberts, Allison Grabowski, Zaya Koegel, Jock Li and Aubrianna Renfrew. Although it is unusual, this year there were also students who achieved more than 1,000 hours of community service during their four-year high school career, making them eligible for the Gold Medallion award — Isabella Allen, Matthew Doane, Caitlin George, Lily Roberts, Tamika Stobart and Sarah Thorn.
This year, the Phoenix Community and Youth Council selected high school seniors Matthew Doane and Caitlin George as its Youth of the Year 2020 — two students who have always reached for and achieved a pinnacle of service, achieving it in great and sometimes unusual ways. While there will be no traditional dinner to present these awards, Doane and George shared heart-felt reasons for their efforts in their applications, while mentors and supporters weighed in with their insight on both students.
Matthew Doane has been working his service magic all around Phoenix and Central New York for much of his life as part of a family that includes mom Lauri, father Bob, and three siblings, Madi, Gianna and Trey. He attended school with Phoenix Central Schools from kindergarten through sixth grade. His older sister made initial inroads and joint example into the service world when they were both young and got involved with the Bridge House Brats – a community relationship that began when Doane was six years old then continued and inspired him to explore so many different ways to assist others.
With the Bridge House, as with other brats, Doane met people from all over the state and even the world. He learned skills from simple clean-up to gardening and meal service, and even more complex ideas about stepping in on needs with action, and support for local business.
Always taking steps forward, the young man had several experiences that built on his experiences with service and leadership from Phoenix. As a young teen Doane was already thinking he might want to become a teacher. So, he asked his previous third grade teacher if she needed any help and volunteered to help out in her summer school class. He played community basketball until he aged out, and then kept going in on Saturday mornings as a referee. In addition, recognizing how these young kids had a limited grasp of the game, he would step in to instruct and explain why, when things weren’t going right on the court. In baseball, Doane and his sister co-coached a T-ball team, and reinforced prior lessons learned — that “the best way to teach is to make fun games that the kids could understand, ”he says.
A member of St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Phoenix, after his first communion, Doane became an altar server, and says, “I fell in love with it”. As his own faith advanced with age, so did his commitment to others, leading Doane’s family to pursue a more faith-based education at Christian Brothers Academy as he entered seventh grade. Still a resident of Phoenix and committed to local support, Doane was determined to straddle his academic, extracurricular and service time between both school and community throughout high school, giving his best to whatever he engaged in.
Continuing as part of the St. Stephen’s Youth Ministry, Doane also participated as a 4-H member, and additionally engaged in Spanish Club, high school band, the Science Olympiad including as captain, the robotics team as well as playing junior varsity and varsity baseball, increasing his rigor and involvement as he moved from ninth grade through junior and senior high school.
Doane worked in medical records for three years with Family Practice Associates, and also with the Americorps program at the Bridge House for two years teaching nutrition and fitness. Obviously one to challenge himself, Doane took on Advanced Placement (AP) classes in English, psychology, physics, and calculus, earning high honor roll status all four high school years, National Honor Society invitation, as well as a Certificate of National Service and the Presidential Community Service Award in 11th grade.
Although he has left his mark in many areas, Doane has ultimately chosen to attend the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) to major in civil engineering technology for college. The interest definitely grew from his connection to robotics throughout high school, where adults took notice of his shine.
Director of Guidance at CBA, Kathleen Hanson notes that in addition to being a senior leader with the Science Olympiad, Doane also acted as one of the lead builders of their VEX Robotics team which competes locally and regionally. He extended his reach into a community-based program where he became the lead technician for First Tech Robotics challenge team, the Firebird Sprockets, designing and building robots for competition and training underclassmen.
She describes Doane as ambitious, intellectually curious, intelligent, “and one of the kindest students I have worked with in over 20 years”. Citing his many activities, service accomplishments, and contributions, she says, “Matt’s warm, calm personality combined with his great sense of humor and initiative makes him a very well-loved volunteer in all of these programs”.
James Brooker is among the adult mentors for First Tech Robotics, who also adds high praise for Doane’s abilities. Pointing out that Doane spent the first two years focused on “enhancing his technical and problem-solving skills”, he was impressed that the young man learned to set up and operate a CNC Mill as part of manufacturing processes. Advancing skills allowed them to add in additional focus such as job approach, tool selection, workspace setup and programming, so that by the end of the second year, Doane was making parts without any assistance, and teaching others after that.
Brooker explains that part of the challenge in their competitive challenges is that “there is no right answer”, with a directive to build a robot that can score the most points on task in a limited time. “That ambiguity is difficult for most students to overcome. They advocate why their idea is best and get frustrated,” he says, “Matt’s greatest value was during design or problem solving discussions,” pointing out that he “respected everyone’s ideas”, which allowed ideas to develop into concepts that could be tested, leaving no one to feel left out. “Matt could keep the discussion objective and progressing towards their goal”,” says Brooker. “His kind and thoughtful personality greatly compliments his adaptive leadership style”.
Of all his involvement, Doane says it is the details and growth experience with the First Robotics team that makes him most proud of achievements – having faced challenges and found solutions. And when it comes to those who most inspired him, and who he most admires, like so many before him, the answer is instantaneous … Cathy Lee. Having been in a position with Americorps to see Lee’s schedule, running from dawn ‘til dusk, he says, “She does so much, and she loves doing it.”
Service, he says, is “just something that over the years resonated with me. You’d get to go do things, meet new people, and make somebody’s day. I’m still talking to kids I worked with during summers”. Doane even recalls the moment that drove it all home.
He had been volunteering at the Samaritan Center and Rescue Mission with his family. The time was 6 a.m. and they were serving meals to the homeless. “It just struck me in that moment, how nice a thing this was, and to see my mom there to help too … It was just a defining moment,” he says.
Doane’s experiences often brought together his commitment to service and faith. Immersed at CBA in their Peer Ministry Program and with continuing involvement at the local church, the young man had many opportunities to plan activities, retreats and special services. He was even asked to teach second graders as they approached their first communion this fall, grabbing a hold of the faith-based guides provided to customize his own lessons. It was “challenging”, he says, but through it all, “I found that I have learned just as much from the kids as I taught them”.
That willingness to “try” is really at the heart of all Doane has explored, and is the one thing he truly recommends to other students considering community service. “Try something. If you don’t like it, try different things, until you find something you like,” he says. “If you love it, it won’t seem like work, and you’ll really feel like doing it, which can be so important to doing it right. There is so much good service work to do”.
Similar to Doane, a glimpse into her life as a youngster shows how Caitlin George was already on track to rack up hundreds of service hours in high school. “I learned early that helping your community is important. People are always willing to help out when I approach them with an idea, so I’ve learned that my words and actions can be powerful when motivating others,” she says.
George is the daughter of Nicole and Don George, and follows an older brother named Jonathan. Time commitments began eight years ago as she was inspired by Jonathan who had gotten started with it, and joined in on the idea to further support Oswego County Opportunities Meals on Wheels (MOW) through the creation of “Blizzard Bags”. These supplementary emergency food bags are put together to assist MOW clients when meal delivery might be challenged and they are unable to receive their regular meal due to inclement weather conditions or if unable to visit local senior dining and activity sites. Each bag is individually prepared and labeled with an assortment of food items (soup, oatmeal, crackers etc.) and a note of support for the day to day experience and even explaining the purpose of the Blizzard Bag.
Donations for the bags are obtained from local grocery stores, community and service groups and sometimes school food drives. It’s not uncommon for school students to decorate the bags or make ornaments at the holidays as an added caring touch. Getting involved at a young age, she says she realized “I felt so good doing it”. In the years since then, “It has grown every year and I am so proud to be a part of it … It makes me happy knowing that people who may not be able to help themselves will still have a warm meal on a cold day”.
That feeling of ‘doing good’ extended as George moved through middle school. She too was a member of the Bridge House Brats as an early teen, moving forward in high school to act as a youth manager, teaching others about volunteering with clean-up walks, serving boaters and organizing groups as they engaged in service. George, amidst a wide range of standard leadership service activities, Student Council and induction into the National Junior Honor Society, also went to work to spearhead a campaign for the Oswego County Animal League, collecting supplies and funds to advance their pet rescue mission, which she has continued to do annually over the past six years.
She went into John C. Birdlebough High School keeping strong and expanding her stride and energy. George became freshman class president, a position she held each year with her sophomore, junior and senior class. She participated on the Principal’s Cabinet, Leadership Council and as student representative on the school’s S.A.V.E. Committee (Safe Schools Against Violence in Education).
Already well on her way as high school began, through her tenure and extensive service at JCB, George was an obvious selection for Camp Talooli Leadership, the Firebird Leadership Camp, the Hugh O’Brien Youth (HOBY) Leadership Ambassador for 2018 and as a HOBY Facilitator the following year.
In addition, George played in the high school band, as a NYSSMA Soloist on flute in 2016, and was then selected for All County band and the Syracuse Honors Band. She also joined DECA (Distributive Education Clubs of America), an international organization that provides high school and college students networking opportunities, social interactions, real life business scenarios and guest speakers from the business community. As with so many endeavors, it showed another side to her conscientious work ethic in the ongoing process of development and competitions. Her range of community service hours from Salvation Army Bell Ringer to car washes, as a volunteer from middle school orientation to senior citizen activities through high school and in the community with events like Canal Days and Locktoberfest, pretty much left no service rock unturned.
Her interest was high when it came to academics and athletics as well. George achieved high honor roll every quarter, was named to the National Honor Society and was named the Class of 2020 valedictorian. She was also often tagged with high achievement awards in subjects like Earth science and biology, French, English, history, algebra and calculus.
George played junior varsity basketball and softball, JV and varsity volleyball for three years (becoming captain) and moved into the varsity track and field and indoor track as well as participating in regional clubs and competitions. In her wake, she collected many an award from Scholar Athlete honors multiple times, to Rookie of the Year, to MVP (Most Valuable Player), both from JCB and other regional play experiences. Her team played in National Championships, one of many elements that qualified her as “Athlete of the Week” and is one of only a handful of students to have been awarded the national Heisman Scholarship, which recognizes scholar athletes with a community service drive.
The young woman also took all those recreational and leadership opportunities to teach others, as a volleyball junior coach, a peer tutor and an inspirational mentoring leader through Oswego County Special Olympics for the last three years.
As student council and class adviser, Lisa Spereno confirms that “Caity is a generous young woman whose accomplishments could fill a novella”. In addition to the many standard fundraisers and service drives for her class – helping the homeless, senior citizens and other community members in need - Spereno points out that it’s not unusual for George to bring “fun and fresh ideas”, like she did by introducing the JCB version of “The Masked Singer”.
George has made a choice for early acceptance to St. John Fisher College. Her interest in biochemistry, pre-med and pre-pharmacy resulted in choosing a major in Pharmacy studies, stating that “working in the medical field is a path where I can continue to help others”.
This young woman had achieved over 1,300 hours of community service as she closed in on the end of her junior year and was awarded the “Presidential Youth Gold Medallion” as part of last year’s “Presidential Service Awards”, bringing no surprise to her latest achievement “Youth of the Year”. She was also selected as one of only 24 to be named as a “Service Scholar” for St. John Fisher.
Reflecting the fact that “It’s been tough for these seniors with everything they are missing out on,” the ongoing traditions and honors are meaningful Caitlin’s mom, Nicole George, explains. “It’s all very exciting for her and she is so humble with all of it.”
George herself says that “although this recognition makes me proud, the smiles and tears of those I help make me even prouder”. Those words echo the sentiments of some who know her best.
“She is one of the very few people to truly care about her fellow man and the future of this world in general,” says Spereno, “She will continue to succeed and build her future in order to help others with theirs”.
Like Doane, George can see how this service path can, in many cases, mean life giving support. And that continuing on that path influences not only their own futures but the future of others.
A lot has changed in the few short months since Youth of the Year applications were filed. With selections made, there seems to be no question from those around them that Matthew Doane and Caitlin George was well-deserving of the honors for 2020. And while the dress-up dinner and accolades of in-person hand-shakes from local, county, state and national level representatives cannot happen this year, that absence does not take away from the local but meaningful contributions made by two young people of Phoenix.
In fact, always known for making the best of a challenging situation, Doane and George got to see how far that appreciation extended as members of the school district and Phoenix Community and Youth Council came out to find a way to give them their due. Wearing masks and standing six feet apart, Youth of the Year awards were presented outside on a sunny afternoon in May down near the Bridge House. Although the service connection is probably one life change these Phoenix seniors miss most right now, the location and mini-ceremony is a reminder of where they both started and what has been most cherished in memory as they move on to their next chapter.
“Community Service has made a tremendous impact on who I am,” George says, “I can’t imagine my life without serving my community and I am proud to be able to give back”.