Senior Projects Enrich Rural Communities

By Trish Yerges

Every year like clockwork, small rural communities become the recipients of generous gifts created by or facilitated by high school seniors and their senior projects.
The majority of public high schools of Union, Wallowa and Baker counties include a senior project requirement for graduation in their curriculum.
“Imbler School District has been recognized by the Oregon Department of Education for its implementation of the senior project and all it entails,” said Imbler High School senior project advisor Nicholle Arnoldus.
Students start planning a project in their junior year in high school and implement or complete it by fall of their senior year. They have to write a 7 to 10 page expository paper and conclude with a 10 to 15 minute PowerPoint presentation to a panel of school faculty judges by spring of their senior year.
Seniors may choose projects that follow a career interest or that have a direct benefit to their community. To get started, each student is assigned to a senior project faculty advisor, who oversees that the project remains on task. Then a community mentor is chosen by the student. The mentor provides the student with 20 hours of job shadowing opportunities as well as guidance during the project.
Of course, the student’s parents are often involved financially and perhaps as photo journalists, documenting every step achieved in the process of completing the project.
What has been accomplished by these seniors and their partners has impacted rural communities enormously. Take a look at a few examples of Imbler senior projects past and present.
McKayla Hoskin produced a very successful little library box located at Imbler Country Market where people can grab a book to read or donate one. The school cross walk lights in Imbler were installed as Tanner McIntosh’s senior project.
Noticeably, Imbler’s City Hall has been the beneficiary of Hannah Bingaman’s senior project. The scope of that project included a fresh coat of paint on the interior walls, re-carpeting and new window dressings.
“It made our office look more friendly and welcoming,” said Imbler city recorder TerrieTeeter.
Union County’s fairgrounds have been a frequent recipient of senior projects.
The sheep pens at the fairgrounds have been replaced through Hailee Patterson’s project and $17,500 in grant money she applied for; and there are new industrial-style, large appliances in the kitchen at the 4-H building at the fairgrounds because of a senior project by Emilee Patterson. This year, Mark Yerges’ project involves making five new picnic tables to replace dilapidated ones at the fairgrounds.
Senior projects may also follow a career path.
One such project is that of Imbler High School senior, Ryan Mullarkey, who just finished constructing an outdoor cat play area for the Animal Rescue and Adoption Center of Eastern Oregon in La Grande. The enclosure has two cat trees inside for perching and playing, and the cats can come and go as they please through an access window from the cat room in the shelter.
Veronica Teem’s project followed a career path, co-directing two productions for the non-profit organization, Friends of the Opera House in Elgin, spending hours helping actors learn their lines, creating props and backdrops, making costumes and even choreographing several scenes.
Of a philanthropic nature, Amanda Feik’s project involved updating the GPS readings for every Imbler residence so that emergency vehicles would locate resident callers faster, saving precious time and lives. She worked with the Imbler city council and with the Union County Planning Department to update the readings in their computer system.
Katie Barry’s project followed a career interest in sports coaching. She helped coach Imbler elementary girls’ basketball for two seasons, planning and assisting at practices and attending their games.
Clearly, senior projects play an important role in meeting the material and cultural needs of a community, and in the process, the senior student learns vital life skills for the future.
“The senior project teaches responsibility and independence,” said Mullarkey. “You have advisors that keep you on the right track, but at the same time, the student is the one responsible, and he has to make the communications with advisors, mentors and anybody else involved in the project.”
Poised on the threshold of adulthood, seniors venture into the sometimes intimidating adult business world to negotiate the terms of their senior project with potential partners and beneficiaries.
“I’ve had to talk to a lot of people on the staff at the animal shelter as well as the owner, John Brinlee,” said Mullarkey. “I’ve had to get supplies from people at Miller’s Home Center and that got me more familiar with the process of purchasing things from people by yourself without other people telling them what you need. You have to figure out what you need and find it. These are things of the real world that you have to do, and you don’t have to do that with your parents standing at your side or a teacher helping you out or directing you.”
Without doubt, senior projects are gifts in donations of time, labor, materials and are funded via the project. Through this process, students are taught how to identify community needs and do something, even at their own expense, to supply that need. They learn how to invest in their communities, leaving a legacy and enjoying the satisfaction of problem solving.
“Students benefit from the senior project in many ways,” said project advisor Nicholle Arnoldus at Imbler High School. “They learn to move outside their comfort zone and communicate with people both in and out of our school and community. I also think that many students really get a sense of accomplishment by completing their project, and we have some students who really learn a lot about themselves and grow as an individual.”
Every year, seniors give generously to their respective communities, and in doing so, they leave their community a better place for residents and let the next class of seniors build on what they have done.