#1StudentNWI: Helping Hands Club helps make a difference in the Michigan City community

#1StudentNWI: Helping Hands Club helps make a difference in the Michigan City community

What’s recently happened?

Michigan City High School (MCHS) hosts many clubs, sports, and activities that students can enjoy and get involved in. With all of this noise, one such club that is rarely given as much attention as it deserves is the Helping Hands club.

“Helping Hands is a service-based club. Since 2019, we have participated in numerous soup kitchens in Michigan City and garbage cleanup at the beach,” Monica Handley, a teacher sponsor for the club, said.

The club has grown greatly since its formation, and because of that, it has accomplished many remarkable things through the hard work of its members.

“Over the years, we have made blankets for Sand Castle Shelter, and we have filled stockings with toys, coloring books, and toiletries for the children in the shelter around Christmas time. We decorated clay pots and planted flowers in them for the school district’s front offices,” Handley said.

The club has recently undergone a change in leadership. Due to this massive change, its focuses have shifted.

Recently, the club has gotten more involved with working with and learning about philanthropists within Michigan City. Members involved have explained that, while service hours were a focal point in the past, they hope to make bigger impacts by seeing community examples and learning from them.

This is just the beginning. Helping Hands members have big plans for making their dreams for the club a reality.

What’s coming up?

Helping Hands members have a plethora of intentions to create the future they dream of for their club before they pass it down to the next class of students.

Starting with their hopes to learn from members of the community, the club is planning invitations for members of the community to speak about philanthropy and humanitarian opportunities within Michigan City.

While the club has yet to schedule any of these events, club leaders and sponsors have been working diligently to reach out to local philanthropists to make this a possibility.

January is a month where the club usually focuses on soup kitchens. Members spent their time doing soup kitchen work during this month to prepare for what comes next: a bigger service event that they schedule in February.

Helping Hands is filled with hardworking and committed members, and while they are the life and soul of the club, there is one more very important person who helped to turn the club into what it is today.

Staff spotlight:

Monica Handley is an English teacher at MCHS who has been teaching for 18 years. She is an avid member of her community and a strong influence on MCHS students. Above all, she recognizes one thing about herself as most important.

“The term learner defines me. I think through my marriage, I continue to learn. Through being a mother, I’m always learning. Through being a teacher, I’m always learning. Through being a part of philanthropy, I’m always learning. Through the tragedies and successes in this life, I’m a learner,” Handley said.

While Handley’s teaching job is a large part of her life, she would love to be knowledgeable enough to someday help with things she doesn’t do for her job but learned from books, television, or other media.

“If they ask, ‘Do you have a nurse?’ Yes, let me help with that. ‘Need a lawyer?’ Yes, let me help you with that,” Handley said.

She understands, however, that learning is a constant journey. All the same, she hopes to reach higher levels of knowledge each and every day.

“I want to be an asset to people rather than just giving them an, ‘I’m not sure,’” Handley said.

Handley stands out to MCHS students the most for her involvement with the Helping Hands club, a unique group that she helped to found a few years ago.

“We have been together since 2020. The reason why I sponsored it was because a student decided he wanted to start a service club,” Handley said.

Her reasons to agree to such a club are much more personal. 

“I said yes to it because my son passed away when he was two. We got involved in philanthropy at that time. We were trying to heal from the grave. We created a fund in his memory to grant money out to people who had lost children. That started our philanthropic journey,” Handley said.

The journey was a long and difficult one, but Handley is very open about the experience in hopes of inspiring others to join philanthropy sooner in life.

“I’ve always had this philanthropic bone in my body. I’ve worked in nonprofit for a couple years. When the student came and asked for the club, it was the perfect one. Part of being a lifelong learner isn’t just the education process within high school and college or in job. I think it's also being a part of the community and serving others is an essential belief and a part of who I am,” Handley said.

Handley’s personal involvement in philanthropy has been nothing less than a long, twisting and turning journey. The fund created in her son’s name has taken on many faces throughout the years, but it has always been to help families through the types of struggles she had.

“My son passed away when he was two. It was an accident involving the pool. At that point, we were looking at making decks that were more safe, sensors that would tell you when something falls into the pool, and locks. We mulled over all of that, and we decided that it was a big task, and with all the grief that we were going through, we decided to throw a memorial fundraiser in memory. We rented out a bowling alley and sold tickets for people to come, and held silent auctions and raffles for people to be involved in,” Handley said.

The fundraiser was extremely successful, an initial moment that pushed Handley further into philanthropy.

“At that point, we raised so much money that we decided to create the Bryce Scott Handley Memorial Fund. It started with our local YMCA, funding life jackets for them and floating devices. Scholarships for kids who were not able to get lessons. That was the first couple years,” Handley said.

The fund grew immensely in the following years, creating another turning point in Handley's philanthropic journey.

“There was a news broadcast about a 16 year old that passed away from cancer. They interviewed the father, really because he couldn’t afford the burial. He had exhausted the health insurance to keep his son alive. The cemetery offered to give him $300 off to dig the plot, and my husband and I were floored. We decided to focus on families that can not afford that. Either pay for the burial, the headstone, the necessities, or the casket itself,” Handley said.

The focus changed several more times, but the central idea remains.

“Whenever there is someone in the community who has lost a child, we search those out, reach out to them, and say, ‘We know you’re going through a tough time, we’ve been there. Here are the services that helped along the way, if you want to check into them.’ We also have a grant, and normally, we ask them to pass that application off to a family member so they don’t have to deal with it. The family member fills it out, and the money is granted,” Handley said.

Handley’s current work greatly stresses that philanthropy should be a part of everyone’s lives.

“You don’t have to go through a traumatic experience to be a major influence in your community. That’s what led us in that direction, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Instilling that now creates better humans, better communities,” Handley said.

Monica Handley is a powerful and inspirational force in her community, and her work continues to change lives.

Student spotlight:

Lorenzo Panozzo-Reid is a junior at MCHS. A hard-working, involved member of the community, his interests are as wide-ranging as his commitments at the school.

“I’m in the Chess Club, Japanese class, I play tennis, throw shot put, and do Quiz Bowl. Outside of school, I’m a member of the Michigan City Black Expo; they do a lot of volunteer work around the community. In my own time, I used to play violin, but my main instrument is guitar. I love music,” Panozzo-Reid said.

This being the time of year for class scheduling, Panozzo-Reid's interests make appearances in his plans for preparing himself for the future. 

“I love music, but I haven’t been able to take A.P. Music Theory. Hopefully we get enough people to do it. I’m really interested in business and business management. Moving forward, I’d like to become an entrepreneur, so I’m trying to gain a wide variety of skills. I’m taking a lot of business classes and a lot of English classes, Finite for math, and Pre-Calculus as a back up,” Panozzo-Reid said.

Even without the application of the future, Panozzo-Reid’s love for all things music is a highlight in his life. 

“On a completely free day, I’d sleep in and play guitar,” Panozzo-Reid said.

Panozzo-Reid's involvement in Helping Hands stands out amongst his achievements. It has been an outlet for his philanthropic mindset since his freshman year.

“I joined Helping Hands because it was the first service-based club I had heard of. When I joined, the club was pretty good. We did a lot of soup kitchens and community service based work.”

Another student at the school founded Helping Hands a few years before Panozzo-Reid got involved. When this student graduated, the club ran into management issues.

“No one could manage the club like he could. Once he left, no one would show up to any meetings. Mrs. Handley told us that she was just going to stop the club because it’s supposed to be student-led,” Panozzo-Reid said.

A few of the underclassmen involved, including Panozzo-Reid, were not ready to give up just yet.

“We said that we wanted to be in charge of the club. We didn’t want it to go to waste," Panozzo-Reid said.

And so, the work began. While it was unlikely to be an easy task, Panazzo-Reid and his peers were clearly up to the challenge.

“We just basically took the rest of our sophomore year to rebuild, and that summer as well. This year is the first year of it being in a stable place to do something,” Panozzo-Reid said.

Most importantly from this do-over the club underwent was the change in the club’s identity that the students created.

“Helping Hands used to be about getting hours,” Panozzo-Reid said.

While this was not the original intention, Helping Hands experienced a time period where it focused heavily on achieving service hours for the members. This changed when Panozzo-Reid and his peers got involved.

“Since we’ve taken charge, it’s more about wanting to play a role in your community, and not so much college based. It’s about trying to get out there and learn about philanthropy, what it means to be a philanthropist, and noting the people in your community who are doing things to better the community as a whole,” Panozzo-Reid said.

Panozzo-Reid believes firmly that getting involved in any sort of philanthropy is an important part of a young person’s life.

“It's crucial because people will focus on themselves, whether that be for more money or their career. And that’s good. But I think that we should also be doing what we can to help others. Even if it's not a lot, just something,” Panozzo-Reid said.

Panozzo-Reid is not one to downplay the essentiality of community service in everyone’s lives. He thinks it is important to show people how it can shape lives, whether that be of others, or their own.

“We just live in a world where there is so much wrong, and so many people are hurting, so I think it’s really important to see the struggles that others go through and what you can do to help them, even if it's not a lot.”

Lorenzo Panozzo-Reid is a hard-working passionate member of the community, and his love for community service has strongly changed Michigan City High School’s outlooks on philanthropy.