Volunteering is in his blood: Four Rivers grad recognized with Young Community Leader Award

SAM WHITNEY

SAM WHITNEY

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 06-13-2024 4:12 PM

Modified: 06-13-2024 7:01 PM


NORTHAMPTON — To say that Sam Whitney likes to play sports might be something of an understatement.

At the Four Rivers Charter Public School in Greenfield, where Whitney graduated this spring, he played soccer, basketball, and the school’s signature sport, ultimate Frisbee. During the summer months, he serves as a summer camp counselor and preschool soccer coach. Such endeavors, of course, are not uncommon for a kid his age.

But what is uncommon for many youth is to take something they are passionate about and use it as a force for good within their community, all while navigating the adult world of bureaucracy to do so.

That’s exactly what Whitney, 18, did this year. As part of a senior capstone project at Four Rivers, he decided to do something that combined his love of sports with work he does supporting youth through fundraising and charity work. The result was a pickleball tournament that would raise money for Twice as Smart, a nonprofit after-school program for low-income children run out of the Second Congregational Church in Greenfield, where Whitney attends. Volunteers at the program, including Whitney, help tutor the kids, who come from a variety of different backgrounds, not just in academic subjects like math and science but also by helping them develop social skills.

It’s that effort and others that convinced the Daily Hampshire Gazette to select Whitney as the eighth recipient of its annual Young Community Leader Award, which he received during an awards ceremony held during the United Way of the Franklin and Hampshire Region’s annual meeting at the Look Park Garden House on Thursday.

“I started by having meetings with people who had experience in running pickleball tournaments,” Whitney said of creating his tournament. “And then I just worked in my free time organizing it, advertising it, working with the Greenfield Recreation Department to reserve spaces.”

The pickleball tournament, held in April, had no required entry fee, and instead simply asked people to pay however much they wanted or were able to donate. Twelve teams participated, with Gary Tashjian and Cheri McCarthy Monette defeating Barbara Killeen and Ken Cook in the championship game.

Whitney’s goal for the tournament was to raise $500 for Twice as Smart. He ended up raising more than $1,500, three times that goal. The money is being put toward education funds for children in the program once they graduate high school.

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“I was super thrilled,” Whitney said. “People just were so generous. It was incredible.”

Alison Rheingold, a teacher at Four Rivers who helped Whitney work on his capstone and who was also one of two people to nominate him for the award along with Sandra Thomas, said what really impressed her was his ability to navigate the process of setting up a fundraiser at such a young age.

“He had to work through a bunch of bureaucratic, adult-level things of trying to get the school to sponsor it,” Rheingold said. “He didn’t give up. He kept asking the questions, communicating really clearly and keeping his eyes on the prize, so to speak.”

Though he received help from others in the community in setting up the tournament, Rheingold said that only highlighted Whitney’s people skills and way of getting others to go along with his vision.

“He was able to work his networks in a really Sam Whitney kind of way, which is to be kind and clear,” she said. “He’s a remarkably affable young man who comes across as smart and articulate, but also deeply kind and people are really persuaded without him even having to try.”

The Young Community Leader Award honors a person between the ages of 15 and 22 who lives in Franklin County or Hampshire County and has contributed to the community through volunteerism or other community involvement, such as civic engagement or public participation. The award, which debuted in 2017, comes with a $500 check, half of which will be donated to a charity of his choice. It is awarded in partnership with the United Way.

“Each year we are presented with several nominations of impressive young people from Hampshire and Franklin counties. Selecting one to recognize over the others is not an easy task, but as we reviewed Sam’s nominations our choice became clear,” Gazette Publisher Shawn Palmer said. “Excellent student; many extracurriculars at school; community involvement; supporting those younger than him who need extra help. Sam does it all, and does it all well.”

During Thursday’s awards ceremony, Whitney deflected praise and instead thanked those who nominated him and his immediate family, including his parents, John and Emily Whitney, and his grandparents, Doug and Amy Clarke.

“It is such an honor to be here today,” he said. “I have so many people to thank and without these people I would not be up here today receiving this award.”

This summer, Whitney will continue his volunteer work as a summer camp counselor, and then will be off to Boston College where he plans to major in political science, though he isn’t quite sure what he wants for a career yet.

“There’s a ton of different paths you can take,” Whitney said. “I’ve definitely thought about law school or moving to D.C. and working in politics, but I’m really not sure yet.”

Until then, Whitney will continue to be active in his community, and pursue a new hobby he recently found himself getting into — baking desserts.

“During the pandemic, I got super into that,” he said. “I would bake these intricate desserts whose names I couldn’t even pronounce. And I don’t even like dessert that much, so I would call my family and ask if I could deliver them.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.