MERIDEN — It’s not unusual to find Noah Vega and fellow members of Platt High School’s Climate Action Club walking along the edge of Sodom Brook on Thursday afternoons.
They scour the area and nearby trails for litter in an effort to keep them clean.
Typically they’re wearing gloves, explained Vega, a 17-year-old senior. Sometimes a member of the group wears waders if they need to step in the water. Lately, they’ve been wearing masks and social distancing — heeding official public health guidance in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
How students go about performing community service has changed since the pandemic started. Access to traditional service projects in settings like nursing homes, hospitals, elementary schools and other locations have been more limited, if not restricted altogether.
In many ways community service has gone virtual. Other students have found remote volunteer projects, including online book drives, video storytelling and video exercise programs.
Some projects, like Vega’s, have been less impacted because they are outdoors.
Platt’s Climate Action Club first started the clean up project in October 2018. Despite the pandemic, their desire to keep the trail clear of litter hasn’t changed. Vega and the group’s other leaders are encouraging safety.
“We keep it as safe as we can keep it,” Vega said. “Before everyone goes out we give them a safety talk.”
That includes going out in small groups and social distancing, in addition to wearing masks.
“Whatever you’re comfortable with doing, we’re encouraging,” Vega said.In-person and virtual service projects
At Maloney High School, students are participating in afterschool service projects and clubs remotely and in person.
This past week, a small group of students stayed after school with their clubs’ faculty advisors. They were decorating a wing of the school, taping up pink and white streamers, balloons and posters, as part of a campaign to make their peers aware that it’s Breast Cancer Month.
Scott Angilly, a Maloney junior and member of the Key Club, noted the service-oriented club usually participates in several small projects, like food drives and blood drives. The club may sponsor more blood drives, since social distancing and other health precautions are already incorporated into them, he said.
“Those can be done much more easily,” Angilly said.
As for whether the club will be able to undertake other service projects, that is not quite clear, Angilly said.
“We don’t know for sure,” he said. “We’re trying our best.”
Gemma Kirby, 17 and a senior at Maloney who was among the group decorating, said overall community service and afterschool activities has been “very different.” Whether they will still be able to hold annual charitable events, like powder puff football games, is up-in-the-air.
Cynthia Simone, a faculty advisor for Maloney’s Skills USA Club, said the group has been “in a pickle” because of the pandemic. The club, which involves training in health and other skilled occupations, has often afforded students the opportunity to go out into clinical medical settings.
“They can’t go out clinically,” Simone said. “So I’m finding that right now, they’re lacking the interaction. Communication skills are so important… They need to get out there and they need to be able to relate to people.”
So later this month, the group will do virtual exercise programs with area nursing homes and senior centers. They will wear Halloween costumes.
“So we’re going to call it a Spooker-cise,” Simone said.
Kate Valentin, who advises Maloney’s Leo Club, said that despite the mix of students attending school in-person and remotely, students are still interested in afterschool activities and service projects. Less than a month and a half into the school year, her club has been able to attract 16 members. The group has had two meetings, with in-person and remote students participating.
“I’m happy we have 16 this year. Given everything that’s happening, I wasn’t sure we were going to have anybody but our club officers,” Valentin said. She and advisors of other clubs will continue to navigate the challenges ahead.
“Ultimately we will find and make opportunities for students to get community service,” Valentin said.
Despite the challenges spurred by the pandemic, the need for service remains, Simone explained.
“The community still needs help,” she said. Still, students, “have to be so careful with social distancing.”‘It sparks a certain level of joy’
Meanwhile, across the city, on Coe Avenue, the work of the Climate Action Club and other student groups also continues.
Since the club started its cleanup project two years ago, they’ve found an assortment of items including soda cans, candy wrappers, potato chip bags and fast food cartons. One time, they found the top of a severed telephone poll. They’ve also found plastic dolls and camping gear.
Vega and his peers are trying to protect the watershed, including the species that call Sodom Brook home.
“We just want to make a difference,” Vega said. “It sparks a certain level of joy to go around and clean up your community.”
Two years ago, the first time the group cleaned up, they gathered around 100 pounds of garbage, Vega estimated. There was a section of Sodom Brook where water had stopped flowing because it was blocked by garbage.
“It flooded behind the school, that’s where we started first. We were able to completely remove the block up,” Vega said.
After students cleared it, the water began to flow once more.
They hadn’t planned for the project to continue, but it has.
On Thursday, the group ventured toward Hanover Pond, where they found a shopping cart that had been dumped into the water.
“We pulled it out,” Vega said. “It’s in perfect condition.”
Club members decided they would repurpose the cart — using it to collect items they pick up along the brook and trail.