MARIETTA — As their school prepared for families to come share a Thanksgiving meal, a group of Sawyer Road Elementary School fifth graders raced around the cafeteria, jockeying for the best route that would allow them to set the most tables.

Ten-year-old Alison Gallegos beamed as she placed brochures on the tables covered in orange and yellow tissue paper, adjusting pumpkins made of strips of paper as she skipped from one round table to the next.

Alison and her classmates are fifth grade International Baccalaureate “ambassadors” at Sawyer Road, an IB school. The IB elementary school prepares students to continue in the IB program throughout their school careers. IB programs include language, social studies, math, science and technology and arts curriculum, and also tend to focus education on other cultures.

Sawyer’s fifth grade ambassadors are considered the leaders of the school and participate in community service regularly.

Alison, who dreams of being an art teacher one day, says her favorite part of the program is helping families in need.

“We need to help people, because some of those people are homeless,” she said, adding she’s especially proud of the school’s collection of canned goods for the needy. “I think it’s great what we do.”

Marietta fifth grader Jose Rodriguez said seeing families in need around Thanksgiving and Christmas is especially hard. That’s why he likes the work he does, like packing boxes to feed needy families and fundraising for cancer research, and why he’ll continue to volunteer when he’s older.

“When I see people on the street that have signs, I feel sad for them, because they don’t have family or any food to eat,” Jose said.

Jose said he also loves helping the school’s kindergarten and first graders. One of the ambassadors’ roles is reading to the younger students and in Jose’s words, “helping them learn.”

Alison said she likes that, too. She said reading to the younger students and helping them sound out words not only helps them learn but also shows the younger students how to be kind and become leaders when they’re older.

Both students said they applied to be in the ambassadors program because they wanted to set an example for their fellow students and make a real difference in the community around their school, not just inside it.

Each year, students apply to be in the IB ambassadors program by writing an essay about what makes them a leader and how they want to help the school and their community, as well as what they want to be when they grow up, according to Tanya Bradley, fifth grade teacher and head of the program. School officials say the program has 20 ambassadors this year.

One of those projects, Bradley said, requires students to get up early on the third Saturday of every month and pack boxes of donated food at GraceLife Church on Allgood Road to give to local families in need.

“They get up early on Saturday mornings, and they don’t mind giving up their Saturday to do it,” said Bradley, who is in her fifth year at Sawyer Road. “These kids are hugging each other in the morning, and they’re just happy to be there. It’s so amazing to hear them talk about how their favorite part of being an IB ambassador is the service.”

Oleta Herron, executive director of the Joseph’s Storehouse food pantry at GraceLife, said it’s obvious the students have a desire to serve. She said working at the food pantry bolsters the number of volunteers at the church while giving the students an opportunity to interact with community members outside their school.

“Sometimes it’s cold as can be, and they get up out of bed on Saturday and come out here and help,” Herron said, adding that the students work from about 8:30 a.m. to about 11 a.m. filling boxes on a kind of assembly line that are then handed to families in a drive-thru. “They’re very polite. We never worry about their behavior because it’s never a problem.”

Fresh off their canned food drive that this year collected 549 items, the students said they’re already looking forward to their Christmas community service project, collecting gift donations for Toys for Tots. After that comes Pennies for Patients, a fundraiser by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society that raises money each year to combat childhood cancer, she said. This year the students have a goal of raising $2,019.

The students also have morning and afternoon responsibilities. In addition to reading to kindergartners or first graders, students assist teachers with end-of-day clean up or work in the school’s media center. Others put up and take down the American flag outside in the morning and afternoon.

Bradley said her favorite part of the program is watching the precocious 9- and 10-year-olds take the lead on projects and seeing the true care they have for their school, fellow students, community and its families.

“They want other students in the school to see them as a leader, and they want to be a role model for their younger siblings who are in school,” she said. “I really hope that they learn how ... and why it’s important to help in their community. It just sets them up to be leaders.”

Follow Thomas Hartwell on Twitter at twitter.com/MDJThomas.

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