By Maya Reyes, Mary Baldwin University

Lexi Tavakoli’s jeans may have been thickly cuffed for fashion reasons, but on this day they served a practical purpose.

The cuffs kept her jeans out of the mud.

A freshman at Sullivan Foundation partner school Mary Baldwin University (MBU), Tavakoli was part of a team of people planting trees at the Valley Mission, a Staunton, Va. shelter for people experiencing homelessness. The Staunton-Augusta Family YMCA’s Youth Volunteer Corps (YVC) organized the service opportunity to assist with Shenandoah Green’s Legacy Tree Project.

Volunteering is meaningful to Tavakoli. A first-year student in MBU’s Program for the Exceptionally Gifted (PEG), she happily volunteers her time. “I’ve got to do something constructive with my time and use it to aid others,” she said.

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College students don’t typically volunteer with the YVC program, but Tavakoli isn’t a typical college student. The California native completely skipped high school. She started at MBU this year at the age most students start high school.

Chris Lassiter, coordinator for the local YMCA’s YVC, is thankful for the help of PEG students.  “I think part of what makes it successful is that they’re great kids who are mature and eager to impact their community,” Lassiter said.

this photo shows several students in Mary Baldwin University's Program for the Exceptionally Gifted volunteering at the Out of the Darkness Walk event in Staunton, Virginia

Volunteering at the Out of the Darkness Walk are (left to right) Heidi Bustos, PEG residence hall director, Victoria Peterson, Addison (last name not given) and Shaahi Kanumuri.

One of the coordinators of this partnership is Heidi Bustos, MBU residence hall director for PEG students, who live in a dedicated center on campus. She saw the vital role that volunteering could have in impacting her hometown community in Chicago.

“My living situation at home was not ideal, and I always found myself looking for opportunities to join organizations that had service opportunities,” Bustos said.

Bustos joined a leadership program that led her to different volunteering opportunities. Through constant networking, she volunteered more than 500 hours. “I believe that service is a big part of me, and to this day I look for different ways that I can be involved in my community and encourage others to do so,” Bustos said.

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Bustos gives weekly newsletters to her PEG students with a list of volunteering opportunities in the community, including YVC activities.

Victoria Peterson, a PEG student from Maryland, appreciates the newsletter. “She [Bustos] introduces opportunities that are available to us,” Peterson said. “I try to come to everything I can.”

Lassiter works not only with university students but also students from the community who are in middle school and high school. “It has been really cool to see them all interact and find a common bond through volunteering together,” Lassiter said.

this is a photo of a mask-wearing Victoria Peterson doing volunteer work as a student in Mary Baldwin University's Program for the Exceptionally Gifted

Victoria Peterson, a PEG student from Maryland, volunteers for Science Delivered.

Peterson agrees. “It is nice to talk to people who are the same age as me in a different position,” she said. “It is refreshing.”

In addition to the Legacy Tree Project these young women have helped out Science DeliveredProject Grows, and the Greater Shenandoah Valley Out of the Darkness Walk.

Markita Madden-Puckett, organizer for the Out of the Darkness Walk, was grateful for the help that the YVC provided. “They rocked!” Madden-Puckett said. “That attitude is everything, and when young people are out on a rainy Saturday morning with a smile on their face and happy to help, how can we be anything but impressed?

“I hope that they will volunteer with us again,” Madden-Puckett continued. “We would be glad to have their help, especially if we are able to return to a more typical schedule for our event where things are much more fast-paced and hectic. I know the group could definitely keep the pace based on how they helped this weekend.”

MBU’s Program for the Exceptionally Gifted is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.

This story has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the Mary Baldwin University website.

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