Sydney Lyman had seen homelessness in the big cities of Seattle and Chicago, but it was on the drive a few years ago through downtown Spokane that she noticed just how prominent it was in her new home.
“We were coming back from the airport, and it was really – I don’t know if shocking is the right word, but it was so different than what I was used to,” said Lyman, a senior at Mead High School. “So that kind of just stuck with me, for a really long time.”
Lyman quickly began working through her church to assist those who were homeless downtown, handing out “blessing bags” of necessities to those who found themselves on the streets. But when it came to her new school, Lyman – then a sophomore – found there weren’t the same opportunities she’d had available previously in her other schools. So she launched the Mead Serves student club at her high school, a student-run group that has coordinated volunteer work with a who’s who of local nonprofits that assist not only the homeless, but neglected pets, land conservationists and young families in crisis.
“There’s so many charities in Spokane you can volunteer with,” said Lyman, now 17. “There’s just an abundance of opportunities, and a lot of my friends didn’t really know about them.”
Those friends needed community service hours for programs such as National Honor Society, and Lyman saw a niche she could fill. She approached Dana Rowan, her AP History teacher and the National Honor Society sponsor on staff, about creating a new club that would unite her peers with organizations in the community in need of help.
“I said, ‘I’m really excited about your enthusiasm, but my plate is super full,’ ” Rowan said. “I don’t know that I can handle another club. But she told me, ‘I can handle all of it.’ ”
That’s typical of high school students who approach her about new initiatives, Rowan said. But when it came to Lyman, the young philanthropist put her money where her mouth was. That summer, while Rowan was sitting poolside, she got a text from Lyman with a link to a website she’d created to organize her group.
“I told her, go jump in a lake, it’s summer,” Rowan said. “You need to spend some time not doing anything academic.”
Lyman downplayed the demands of setting up her own website, and working through a cellphone application to keep the now dozens of members of the club up-to-date on the two or three service opportunities Mead Serves organizes each month. The Mead Serves website features not only meeting agendas and minutes, but also pictures and summaries of the group’s work with organizations like Higher Ground Animal Sanctuary in Green Bluff, the Union Gospel Mission, Second Harvest Food Bank and the Vanessa Behan Crisis Center’s Santa Express program.
In the beginning, Lyman organized much of the volunteer work herself, Rowan said. That level of organization began early. As a child, Lyman said she dreamed up potential business ideas with a friend and set up websites to promote them.
“I remember one of them was called ‘16 Parties,’ and it was me and my friend who wanted to go and be party planners for little kids, stuff like that,” Lyman said. “We were in fourth grade, and we really liked planning things.”
Angie Startin, a family friend who first met Lyman through church and has worked with Mead Serves to staff a Halloween costume drive and carnival through Catholic Charities, said it’s the teen’s attention to detail and drive that sets her apart from her peers.
“Sydney will come up with her own thing,” Startin said. “If she wants to pull something off, she’ll come up with her own way.”
Lyman said letting go of the reins of Mead Serves will be difficult when she leaves for college next year.
“I’m definitely a perfectionist, an ultraperfectionist,” Lyman said.
The club has created a succession plan that will allow the younger crop of students to apply for officer positions and prove through the spring semester they can schedule and maintain the club’s commitment to service in the community.
That’s important for Startin, who’s come to depend on the staffing the teenagers at Mead provide for the Halloween charity events.
“I work with Sydney, every October, to get all of the teenagers to pull off the carnival,” Startin said. “I am nervous, if things fall apart.”
Lyman’s future likely includes medical school, she said. Rowan sees the White House, and isn’t shy about sharing it, as she included in her applications for Lyman to receive KREM’s Credit2Kids award and the Young Philanthropy Award from Spokane County United Way. Lyman picked up both and put the winnings back into the club funds for Mead Serves.
“She works so hard,” Rowan said. “She just truly does it because she wants to help other people.”
“She’ll run the world someday,” Startin agreed.
Lyman said she appreciated the accolades, which she feels recognize the work she put into establishing the service club. But it’s the survival of that club, and the importance of demonstrating to her peers the benefits of looking beyond the day-to-day struggles of being a teenager, that motivate her.
“I think it’s good to just realize everything that you have,” Lyman said. “Because a lot of times you can get caught up in everything that’s going wrong in your life.
“It is very important, in my opinion, to just see what other people go through.”
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