Before sunrise each summer weekday, Scott Blackburn, 16, prepares props, sets up scenes, or designs backdrops to use onstage. He builds sets and runs scenes, instructs a youngster struggling with lines, or shepherds a group of children to the cafeteria for a juice break.
Blackburn volunteers—along with 18 other young people ranging in age from 13 to 22—at West Deptford Little Theatre, a summer dramatic arts program celebrating its 28th season. Under the direction of this volunteer team led by Susan Schramm, director of Little Theatre, 150 children treat their parents to everything from Grease to Snow White during the program’s eight-week season.
“I don’t think people realize how much the volunteer gets out of volunteering,” says Scott’s sister Katie, 20, another theater staff member.
It may be better to give than to receive, but in West Deptford, N. J., a township of 19,368 people, kids learn early it’s even better to give back. Township history harks back to 1871, making it a newcomer town in the shadow of Philadelphia, its historic neighbor on the other side of the Delaware River. But whatever West Deptford lacks in history, it makes up with its vision for the future, a vision of service shared by young and old alike.
It may seem unusual that so many young people are willing to give of their time—and themselves—to assure the life of a program, but the Little Theatre isn’t the only organization in West Deptford to benefit from the kindness of kids.
The township website boasts “Service is our business” and backs the claim by providing even its youngest citizens with ample opportunity to serve. Saturday mornings may find Boy Scout troops cleaning the streets at RiverWinds, the town’s $100 million project that, when finished, will host recreational facilities, an assisted living area, and numerous marinas.
That same afternoon, a troupe of performers, all under the age of 12, may entertain at a geriatric home or a children’s hospital. This is Flair, an offshoot of the Little Theatre sponsored by the town’s parks and recreation department. The group of pre-teen volunteers entertains and educates, bringing the message of “just say no” to their peers.
Across town, 20 volunteers, all too young to drive, walk or ride bikes to Red Bank Elementary School. These youngsters instruct approximately 80 5-year-olds at Safety Town, a program designed to teach township kindergarten students basic safety rules on subjects such as “good touch, bad touch,” stranger safety, and fire prevention.
“The kids forgo summer jobs or swim team to help the younger children in their own community,” says Mary Lamey, an elementary school guidance counselor and “mayor” of Safety Town. The township’s Junior Women’s Club sponsors the program, but the staff consists entirely of young volunteers. They teach preschoolers to strap on a bike helmet, to “stop, drop, and roll” if your clothes catch fire, and to cross streets safely.
“This year was the first that our former Safety Town graduates were old enough to come back as instructors,” says Danielle Cairns, club co-president. “It’s nice to see the kids return to work the program they enjoyed when they were little.”
When it comes to “return volunteerism,” West Deptford Little Theatre is working on its third generation. The program—started 28 years ago by elementary teacher Susan Schramm, her husband, Joe, and a team of teenage volunteers—has outgrown its original backyard home and moved into the high school. Many of the kids practicing dance steps or setting lights this season are children of those who first learned about theater in Schramm’s back yard.
Scott Blackburn grew up volunteering at the theater, following in the footsteps of siblings Dave, Kim, and Katie—and his mom, Kathy.
“It’s a bit weird,” says Scott, an assistant director this year. “I always looked up to the others, my brother and sisters and the kids who went before. Now there are kids looking up to me. That means a lot,” he adds.
In West Deptford, the sentiment is shared.