Earlier this year on the south side of Chicago, a few dozen cadets from the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) at Morgan Park High School were laughing and joking as they filed through an assembly line. They were making care packages with daily living essentials like toothpaste, socks, deodorant, soap and combs, to deliver to veterans at a nearby nursing facility the following day.  

Students provide supplies for veterans.

When asked about delivering the care packages, Aaliyah Hendricks, a student JROTC leader, grinned. “I hope to see a lot of happy veterans with smiles on their faces,” she said. “One, because this is for them. Two, because it’s always good to give to the community.”

In February 2020, The Allstate Foundation awarded the Morgan Park High School JROTC a $2,500 grant for their “Supporting Our Veterans” community service project. As part of its youth empowerment program, the Foundation connects youth across the country with service-learning – programs that engage students in activities to better others and their community. Service-learning helps young people build important skills like teamwork, confidence and resilience and is shown to help youth succeed in school, work and life while making positive change in their communities.

Remembering a Life and Legacy

The cadets chose to organize the supply drive one year after their JROTC Army Instructor, Sgt. 1st Class Otha Davis, passed away unexpectedly. The group hopes to continue honoring Davis’ life and legacy with annual service-learning events that benefit their community.

A longtime leader of the school’s JROTC program, Davis was familiar with the unique challenges many of his students faced. He made it his purpose to provide kids with the tools and help them develop the life skills they needed to overcome negative narratives that seemed to perpetually swirl around them and their community. He did so by reminding them to lean on each other and fellow community members when times were tough.

“Sgt. 1st Class Davis wasn’t just our army instructor. He was a friend,” said Hendricks, who’d been close to Davis. “He was someone we could count on and talk to about anything.”

Choking back tears, she added, “He helped us whenever we needed help.”

Excited to Lead

“When the students found out they were receiving The Allstate Foundation grant, in one word, I would describe it as excited. They were excited to be able to lead,” said Morgan Park High School principal, Dr. Femi Skanes.

“When someone supports them in a project they’re passionate about, it drives them to be better,” added Master Sgt. Delval G. DeSavieu Jr., an Army JROTC leader who joined the MPHS faculty after Davis’ passing. “It gives them hope. Sometimes kids, coming from different areas of Chicago and different backgrounds, need that spark. The fact that someone trusted them to do something positive; put it in their hands. It’s very important.”

 “The Allstate Foundation believes when young people are empowered with the knowledge, skills and resources to step up as leaders, they can change the world,” said Laura Freveletti, senior program officer for The Allstate Foundation. “These students exemplify what our Allstate Foundation youth empowerment program is all about – empowering students to showcase their resilience, courage and empathy and to make a difference in their community.”

This service project was documented by Morgan Park High School students and Fresh Films, a nonprofit that uses the lens of film to help teens build their workplace skills along with their ability to problem solve, work hard, communicate and be leaders. Watch the short film here:

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