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Franklin Regional students show how much they care

| Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, 9:30 p.m.
(c) 2012 Lillian DeDomenic
Seventh-graders Lauren Palmer, foreground, and Julia Kukalis participate at the SOS — Serving Other souls — meeting at Franklin Regional Middle School on Monday, Oct. 1, 2012. The club is committed to helping others through empathy and understanding. Lillain DeDomenic | for the Murrysville Star
(c) 2012 Lillian DeDomenic
Chris Cooley, club advisor, talks about the November 5K fundraiser that is being planned by SOS, Serving Other souls, a Franklin Regional Middle School club committed to helping others through empathy and understanding. Lillain DeDomenic | for the Murrysville Star

Though his classroom is decorated with the image of Superman, Spider-Man and other comic book superheroes, Chris Cooley, a Franklin Regional seventh-grade math teacher, wants to inspire students to be the real heroes to their neighbors in need.

At an age where apathy can outrank empathy, a group of 40 teens have raised more than $18,000 to feed the homeless, clothe fire victims and help families dealing with cancer.

“We're here to take kids and translate them into better human beings,” said Cooley, who teaches at Franklin Regional Middle School. “Teenagers are built to do the least possible. If it hurts, they don't do it. To take them out of their comfort zone is the best thing possible for them.”

Last fall, Cooley started Serving Other Souls, an after-school club that encourages students to increase empathy and decrease apathy. Throughout the past year, students have collected food to provide struggling families with a Thanksgiving dinner, collected clothing for the homeless and caroled at a local senior center during the holidays.

Thanks to a $5,000 donation from an anonymous local businessman, the group has the money to front a new fundraiser – Miles of Smiles for the Gals, a 5K and one-mile walk to benefit three families affected by cancer. The event, scheduled for Nov. 4, will be organized by the SOS members. Proceeds will be split into thirds, equally benefiting Sunny Carney, a Plum woman who has battled carcinoid cancer for 10 years; Lorri Nixon, a Plum mother diagnosed with aplastic anemia and leukemia; and the family of Kristin Croyle, a Murrysville mother of eight who died in August from pancreatic cancer.

“These three super-sick women all have tremendous needs,” Cooley said. “I want these kids to be a part of that, to empathize with these women that are so inspiring.”

It was two concurrent natural disasters that inspired the group's creation – a tsunami destroying parts of Japan and a tornado that plowed through Hempfield Township. Cooley gathered about 50 students to volunteer with the Westmoreland County Salvation Army to help the Hempfield tornado victims, while others made paper cranes to help raise money for the tsunami victims.

During the two days Cooley spent with students at the Salvation Army, he came to a stark realization.

“Of those 50 kids, 47 had never done service-based work in their lives and couldn't believe how good it made them fell,” Cooley said.

“They ranted and raved about how much they wanted to go back.”

That summer, he knew he wanted to “do something awesome, do what we did there and multiply it by 30.”

The group had a strong start last year, with 41 members who paid dues. This year, membership already is up to 43.

The students wear their “colors” – neon yellow T-shirts emblazed with the SOS logo on the front and “Got empathy” on the back – every Monday to encourage others to join the group.

Word of mouth worked to recruit students such as eighth-grader Avery Westendorf, 13, of Export.

She heard about SOS from several of her friends who were members and said she is glad she has joined the club this year.

“It's a good idea to help others around us and a great idea to see people from other perspectives,” said Westendorf, treasurer of the club. “Sometimes, we forget how lucky we are to have what we have.”

Cooley speaks highly of the students in the club and said he hopes they inspire others to get involved.

“The kids in this group are all awesome individuals to begin with,” Cooley said. “To look for awesome to become more awesome, that's hard to quantify.”

He wants the group to grow in the coming years to the point where the student body as a whole focuses primarily on giving back to the community. He wants the “positive mojo” to rub off on other students to help eliminate any bullying.

Mikayla Durkoske, president of the group, said she thinks that is possible.

“If we're trying to help, we can change the opinions of others,” said Durkoske, an eighth-grader. “We can encourage them to help, as well.”

There aren't a lot of opportunities for teens to volunteer in the community, said Durkoske, 14, of Murrysville. Through SOS, she has seen changes in herself and how she sees the world around her.

She realizes how many people out there are less fortunate, she said, and that there is a lot that can be done to help.

“Hopefully, this will inspire kids our age to do something to help,” Durkoske said. “The things you get to do here stay with you for life.”

Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8627, or

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