Students in Action program continues to earn accolades

Students in Action members Jakob Sabatula (left), Jayda Smith, and Andrew Haven, along with sponsor Kellie Polvinale, gather outside the Brownsville Free Public Library, where the team is creating a teen space.

Students in Action members Jakob Sabatula (left), Jayda Smith, and Andrew Haven, along with sponsor Kellie Polvinale, gather outside the Brownsville Free Public Library, where the team is creating a teen space.

According to Newton’s first law of motion, an object at rest will stay at rest and a body in motion will remain in motion, unless acted on by an external force; in Brownsville that force is Students in Action.

The high school program started seven years ago continues to influence the direction of growth in the downtown area. In the 2011-12 school year, a group of six students approached Brownsville Borough Council with a proposal to put a stage next to the library. The idea evolved until it became a park with a concert gazebo adjacent to the Market Street parking lot along Dunlap Creek. A private developer has constructed senior apartments across the street.

“From people not being able to get things moving, six kids were able to make it happen,” said Kellie Polvinale, one of the current teacher sponsors of SIA.

Polivinale and Rebecca Harvey, both kindergarten teachers, were asked to take over the program at the start of last school year after the first sponsor, Kelli Dellarose took a new position. Polvinale said they were tapped as the sponsors because Harvey’s son was a senior in the program last year and Polvinale’s younger sister had been one of the founding members of the group. Polvinale said the new superintendent, Dr. Keith Hartbauer, has been very supportive of SIA.

“He was very proud of what this team had accomplished and wanted to keep it going,” Polvinale said.

The SIA team is made up of two students from the sophomore, junior and senior classes, with two new sophomores selected through applications and interviews each fall, giving the team continuity and experience from year to year. This year’s SIA team included seniors Jaden Harvey and Andrew Havens, juniors Jayda Jones and Salanieta Waqanivalu and sophomores Sainiana Waqanivalu and Jakob Sabatula.

“At first I wondered why we kept it so small. I looked at other schools that had 30, 40, 50 students involved,” Polvinale said.

Polvinale said she has come to realize that the small team is actually able to accomplish more than a large group.

“Since there are only six of us, if people don’t do their job, you can tell,” Jones said.

SIA is a national student leadership program started by the Jefferson Awards Foundation, designed for students to pursue public service including their entire school and the wider community for maximum impact.

Jones said she was very active at Brownsville Area High School her freshman year, serving as class president and joining other activities.

“But it was all school oriented. I noticed our community wasn’t doing so well,” Jones said.

When the opportunity came up to apply for SIA, she jumped at it, seeing it as a chance to impact the town.

Sabatula said he was influenced by the work of the teams that had gone before him.

“My freshman year, seeing the past SIA members, it was very inspiring. When the stage project was first announced and the sign was put up with the amount they needed to reach, it really motivated me. The stage being completed has spurred other projects in town,” Sabatula said.

Jones said the current team at first thought about ways to bring more businesses to town, even to the point of considering what type of business they would like to start, but realized that running their own business would be impractical.

Smith said the team realized it would be easier to get people from outside of Brownsville to invest in the town if the people who live in the community are already utilizing the resources that are there.

The current SIA team is working to develop a teen space at Brownsville Free Library. The project started with the idea of developing a basement room of the library into a place where teens could collaborate on projects, learn new skills and just have a place to call their own. The library board has asked the students to consider an addition to the library, which would provide even more opportunities. The team has visited other community libraries over the past year to see how teen spaces have been developed and have settled on a model which provides the tools students need, such as sewing machines or guitars, but generally doesn’t have formal programs.

“We’re in the very beginning stages,” Polvinale said. “They want a place where they can get together and share resources and help one another.”

Although the teen space is just a concept at the moment, the project was strong enough to garner first place in the national Jefferson Awards competition this year. Sitting through the awards ceremony was difficult, the students said.

“It was nerve-wracking. Had we done enough to win? These other schools had done amazing things,” Jones said.

The students said that when the bronze and silver winners were announced and only gold was left, they assumed they hadn’t won, but were ready to get back to work on their project.

“When I realized we had won, I didn’t hear anything else that was said,” Haven said.

Polvinale said the Jefferson Awards committee realizes that big projects take time and start with big ideas.

“The original team won on just an idea,” Polvinale said. “What they see with these students is they want to make impacts that will last years and years. When Jakob goes off to college, that stage will still be there.”

Sabatula said it took determination to complete the stage project.

“Just one step at a time, and it carries on by itself. We had the help and support, it was unbelievable,” Sabatula said. “Once we came across a problem, we worked on it as a team and found a solution and kept moving forward.”

Story by Christine Haines for Pennsylvania Bridges