To pass muster as Santa, Parker Paulson, a rail-thin teenager, packed a pillow and a parka into the Santa suit made by his grandmother. The Santa suit was a veteran of many Christmases — worn by uncles and other relatives — but Parker was a nervous newbie, his “Ho Ho Ho” lacking in self-assurance.
At the holiday carnival, he was surrounded by a cadre of teen elves dressed in Santa hats or wearing headbands bobbing with reindeer antlers. Together, the teens from the Youth Volunteer Corps of Yellowstone County ran a booth offering photos with Santa at a holiday carnival in early December at Garfield Community Resource Center.
Though the Santa gig was a new one, Paulson, a senior at West High, has put in 250 hours with the YVC, a community service club formed in 2009 for youths ages 11 to 18.
“I feel Santified,” Paulson said after putting on the crimson suit.
“Jolly,” he added.
Paulson joined YVC as a high school freshman. On his first project he helped special needs children at a day camp run by Eagle Mount.
“I just had so much fun,” Paulson said. “I liked the people that volunteered, the way the organization ran.”
Since then, he has joined about 40 YVC projects and spent a month in the summer working with the Montana Conservation Corps. His most memorable task so far was cleaning the tiger area at ZooMontana. The volunteer service has made him far more aware of community needs, he said.
Paulson has enlisted in the Navy.
“I really liked serving and felt like the Navy was the ultimate form of serving,” he said.
In 2009, the YVC was launched with a three-year, start-up grant from Youth Volunteer Corps of America, said Nathan Stahley, the program manager. Operating under the auspices of The Volunteer Center of United Way, the program tries to instill a volunteer culture among teens and offer opportunities for youths as young as 11 to help their communities.
“If someone volunteers in their youth, they’ll be volunteers through their life,” said Stahley, a Billings native who graduated in 2008 from Rocky Mountain College.
The 80 youths who are signed up with the corps pick and choose among projects. Projects usually draw five to 15 teen volunteers.
Brenna Cockburn, 16, a junior at Senior High, spent five days in the summer working with the YVC on a Habitat for Humanity house.
“It was super hard work,” she said. “We put in a plywood floor and a wall. It was crazy to see what you can get done in a week.”
When Stahley came to her school to talk about the program, Cockburn thought the volunteer experience would look good on a resume.
“I never thought I would like to volunteer. I thought it was just something I had to do for college,” she said. “Now I look forward to every project I can do now.”
Megan Weller, a senior at West High, plans on a career in graphic arts. In the two years since she joined YVC, she’s done 25 projects, including working on updates to the YVC website. Last summer she worked with the children at Friendship House.
“They act like you’re their best friend immediately,” Weller said.
She helped the children plant seeds in a garden, go swimming at South Park pool and cool off with a water balloon fight.
Service projects are structured so that the teens get to work in groups.
“Volunteering with their peers is a lot more fun and engaging,” Stahley said.
At the holiday carnival, the group paired up with the Montana State University Billings Office for Community Involvement, a campus group that fosters community service. While YVC teens ran the photos-with-Santa booth and another table for making Christmas tree ornaments, the campus groups ran other booths, including a cupcake walk and sugar cookie decorating.
“Usually, if a project has to do with animals it’s pretty popular, or if it’s social,” Stahley said. At the Yellowstone Valley Animal Shelter, teens helped clean out kennels and walk the dogs during a summer volunteer session. They also designed outdoor stepping stones in the shape of paw prints and built outdoor spaces for the dogs to lie down.
Typically, the group teams up with other community service organizations. During the school year, YVC projects last a few hours and take place on weekends or after school. In the summer, YVC tackles a series of more intense, weeklong projects.