Alabama high schooler’s VoluNeed project connects students with volunteer opportunities

Alabama high schooler’s VoluNeed project connects students with volunteer opportunities
T.R. Miller High School senior Sam LoDuca stays busy, and he created a texting service, VoluNeed, that matches students who need volunteer hours with nonprofits that need volunteers. (Michael Cornelison)

They say that necessity is the mother of invention.

For Brewton’s 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 in 2018, the service connected 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 nonprofit or community organization, such as Habitat for Humanity or a church, sends Sam the information about its 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, the student arrives to earn the volunteer hours.

How it began

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

LoDuca, a senior at T.R. Miller High School, said when he began looking for volunteer opportunities, he saw a “disconnect” between students and nonprofits.

“It was really during my sophomore year when I noticed the disconnect,” he said. “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?

“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.”

Sam LoDuca, center, participates in a summer Washington, D.C., Youth Tour sponsored by the Alabama Rural Electric Association. (Michael Cornelison)

And he was right.

“I knew that nonprofits needed help to fill their ranks when conducting an event,” he said. “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.

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

The LoDuca family found Send Text, a service that operates similarly to the “Remind” system used by schools. Once established, LoDuca 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 said.

There is a small financial obligation for the service, which is covered by his family.

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

How it works

LoDuca said there is a sign-up for different participating nonprofits. In Brewton, those groups include Habitat for Humanity; Drexell & Honeybee’s, a Brewton no-pay restaurant; Brewton Reborn, a beautification and quality-of-life effort; Brewton’s First United Methodist Church’s Backpack Buddies, which provides schoolchildren with nutritious snacks; and Paws Crossed, an animal rescue mission. 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 Miller 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 nonprofit or event has staff to work and the student gets their needed hours.

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

Students can visit or text 57838 to participate.

Where it goes from here

LoDuca 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 volunteer opportunities. That project is in the beginning stages and should launch soon.

An active student, LoDuca 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,” LoDuca said. “I don’t want it to be a Brewton thing. I want it to go everywhere. Students everywhere have the same need, as do nonprofits and organizations.

“We talked about using a different code for different areas, so people could easily see the information specific to their hometown,” he said. “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,” LoDuca said. “Being active and helping others is something that I have always loved to do. This project is just a continuation of that.”

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

This story originally appeared in Alabama Living magazine.

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