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Filling a need: Young man’s project connects students with volunteer opportunities

By Stephanie Snodgrass

Sam LoDuca on the roof of the Newseum while on Washington Youth Tour.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention.

For Brewton’s Samuel “Sam” LoDuca, that was exactly the case when it came to creating “VoluNeed,” a texting service designed to fulfill a student’s graduation requirement for volunteer service hours.

Organized last August, the service is celebrating its first full year connecting local high school students with volunteer opportunities in Escambia County. Its motto: Bringing the hands of the volunteer to the heart of the need.

It works like this: a non-profit or community organization, such as Habitat for Humanity or a local church, sends Sam the information about their upcoming event – date, time, location, need, etc. Then Sam, through the service, texts the information to the nearly 200 students currently enrolled in the program. If a student’s schedule matches the need, they arrive to earn the volunteer hours. 

How it began

Students who participate in organizations such as the National Honor Society (NHS) and the Student Government Associations (SGAs) are required to have a certain number of volunteer hours to earn distinction at graduation. Colleges and universities also put special emphasis on community service when applying for scholarship opportunities.

The senior at T.R. Miller High School said when he began his search for volunteer opportunities, he noticed a “disconnect” between students and non-profit organizations.

“It was really during my sophomore year when I noticed the disconnect,” Sam says. “I was trying to get volunteer hours for (NHS), and I realized I didn’t know where to go. 

“I got to asking, ‘Where can I go? What can I do?’ Knock on the door, I guess, and ask if they need help?” he said of his mission to local service hours. 

“I thought to myself, ‘I’m sure others are in my same situation.’ So, I talked with mom and said let’s do something about it. I decided we could be the middleman and connect people using technology.”

And he was right.

“I knew that nonprofits needed help to fill their ranks when conducting an event,” he says. “There was no influx of people, so I saw an opportunity to fix that. We weren’t sure how to implement it. We thought maybe a website or social media, but we ended up doing it as a text service.

Sam LoDuca, center, with the Washington Youth Tour group at the Marine Corps Museum. Photos by Michael Cornelison

“Teenagers aren’t on Facebook all that much, but everyone – and I mean everyone – checks their text messages,” he says.

The family found “Send Text,” a service that operates similar to the “Remind” system used by schools. Once established, Sam began handing out business cards with the sign-up information. 

“The cards are just an easy way to let people know the opportunity is there,” he says.

Sam says there is a small financial obligation for the service, which is covered by his family.

“I don’t remember the dollar amount,” he says. “That’s help from Mom.”

How it works

Sam says there is a sign-up for different participating nonprofits. In Brewton, those groups include Habitat for Humanity; Drexel & Honeybee, a Brewton no-pay restaurant; Brewton Reborn, a local beautification and quality of life effort; Brewton’s First United Methodist Church’s Backpack Buddies program, which provides school children with nutritious snacks; Paws Crossed, an animal rescue mission; and more. Other city and community organizations, as well as the Brewton City School System, also participate.

“(One) recent call for action was the Burnt Corn Creek Run,” he said of the TRM Cross Country team’s annual fundraiser. “The school has a paper that is signed by event staff to log the hours for each student. So, it really is a win-win for everyone involved. The non-profit or event has staff to work and the student gets their needed hours.

“Our non-profits love it,” he said. “We also just started an Instagram page.”

Students can visit voluneed.org or text 57838 to participate.

Where it goes from here

Sam is working to expand the service to all Escambia County students and beyond. He was recently asked by Coastal Alabama Community College – which has campuses in Brewton, Bay Minette and Monroeville – to begin working with its Ambassador Program to provide college-age students with community volunteer opportunities. That project is in the beginning stages and should launch soon.

A very active student, Sam spent the summer traveling – first to the University of Alabama’s Boys State event, then to the U.S. Naval Academy Summer Seminar and as a delegate representing Southern Pine Electric Cooperative on the Washington D.C. Youth Tour, sponsored by the Alabama Rural Electric Association.

At every stop along the way, he shared the program and its mission.

“When I went to Boys State, I talked to a lot of people to get the idea out there,” Sam said of his mission. “I don’t want it to be a Brewton thing. I want it to go everywhere. Students everywhere have the same need, as do non-profits and organizations.

“We talked about using a different code for different areas, so people could easily see the information specific to their hometown,” he says. “We haven’t gotten all the details worked out, but it is something that I can see developing in the future.

“Community is very important to me,” he says. “Being active and helping others is something that I have always loved to do. This project is just a continuation of that.”

Sam is the son of Brewton pediatrician Dr. Paul LoDuca and his wife, Summer. After graduation, he plans to enter the U.S. Air Force.