Inspired by Catholic education at Bishop Watterson, students find new ways to help others

Danae King
The Columbus Dispatch
Bishop Watterson High School has students so focused on philanthropy that many of them found ways to give back during the pandemic. Senior Maddie Phillips, 17, started a jewelry business and is donating 75% of the proceeds to the Mid-Ohio Food Collective.

Before she was introduced to volunteering through a class requirement, Kate Drab didn’t know how to get started. Now, she can see herself tutoring children in her free time for the rest of her life.

Drab, 16, credits her Catholic education at Bishop Watterson High School with her inspiration to volunteer, which admittedly looks a little bit different this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead of going to the local library after school to tutor younger students, she heads online to meet virtually with children in Ghana — to whom she teaches English — and to tutor a Maryland sixth-grader.

The North Side high school that she attends has a service learning component where students are assigned 18 to 24 hours of volunteering during their sophomore year and then write a reflection on their experience.

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"The goal is to make service a part of their everyday life and something they'll do for the rest of their lives," said Deacon Chris Campbell, Bishop Watterson principal. "They find that they get a lot more out of it than the people they're serving even. And they find out for them it's very rewarding, and I think that's why so many of them continue to do that, because they find that it makes them feel good."

It isn't unusual for high schools to encourage or require students do some kind of volunteering, and the other 11 high schools in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Columbus also have service requirements for their students, said Lori Dulin, associate director of marketing and enrollment for Columbus Catholic schools. 

But the student work at Bishop Watterson provides a snapshot of how such volunteerism has changed during the past year.

Maddie Phillips, 17 and a senior from Powell, started her own jewelry business with her mom during the pandemic and donates 75% of their profits to the Mid-Ohio Food Collective.

“I’ve always loved to volunteer, but with COVID it was hard to do,” Phillips said.

So she found another way to help others by learning to make clay earrings sold on Etsy under the name OHMimiJewelryCo.

She said she wanted to keep the proceeds local and realized that, while her life was stable, others were struggling and some who had struggled before the pandemic were impacted even more severely during it.

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“Watterson’s built around faith and giving back, and we do a lot of volunteering and donating through our school,” Phillips said. “I think that definitely played a part because I was already around that environment. I definitely learned from that.”

Sofia Roncone, 16, began a grocery delivery service and shops for and delivers groceries to seniors.

The Powell junior came up with the idea after trying to determine a way to help people in the community over the summer. She found that traditional volunteer opportunities were limited with the pandemic, especially for minors, so she created one of her own.

Now she calls three elderly couples each week to see what they need, and they slip handwritten notes with their grocery lists under their doors to her.

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“Faith is really important to me. It’s always been important to me throughout my whole life,” Roncone said. ”It kind of pulled on my heart strings to see people in need. ... It's just exciting to see them happy and for me to feel like I'm a part of taking care of them."

Roncone said her education at Bishop Watterson taught her that she didn’t need tons of money or resources to help people, she could just use her talent and the resources in her community.

Amelia Pepe, 16, also used the resources she had to bring smiles to others’ faces.

The Delaware junior discovered during the pandemic that she has a passion for baking, and she began bringing baked goods to people she thought were most in need of appreciation. Healthcare workers, neighbors who had lost loved ones or were struggling and others have received her sweet treats.

“It makes me feel like I'm able to make their day a little better," she said. "Even during these hard times."

Karissa Bowman, service director at Watterson, said 60 to 70% of the school's 918 students far exceed its requirement of service hours during sophomore year, and many volunteer at the same place for the rest of their high school career.

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“Our kids do a really great job with using that project as a springboard to go above and beyond,” she said.

Many students say they wouldn’t have sought out a volunteer opportunity themselves if not for the requirement, Bowman said.

Bishop Watterson High School, one of 12 Catholic high schools in the Diocese of Columbus, on the North Side.

She likes to get to see students "bloom as Catholics" through the service projects. Service is integral to a Catholic education because the foundation of the Catholic faith is Jesus and his service to others, she said.

“It really helps students buy into our mission. It helps them in the formation process,” Bowman said. “Jesus we believe is the first teacher. He is our guide, he is our mentor. In our theology classes students see how he serves others. … We try to make a parallel: ‘This is what Jesus did. Here is how we can do that in our own lives.’”

Drab said she wanted to keep volunteering during the pandemic, despite her local library closing due to the virus, because she began to have a lot of free time.

“My life was still pretty normal during COVID, so I wanted to give back to people whose lives were disrupted," she said. 

The junior from Dublin said Bishop Watterson started her on the path of volunteering. 

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“I saw an opportunity to do something that would really help people," she said. "And I took it."