Five-year-old Haley Lukas did not want to give up chocolate for Lent.
In the lives of many Christians, Lent is a time of sacrifice and penance in preparation for the Easter season. But for a kindergartener, Lent is mostly 40 days with less sugar: a daunting thought for high-energy children. Faced with this prospect, Lukas asked her mother, Shari Lukas, why this sacrifice was important, unable to see the purpose of surrendering chocolate. So instead of sweets, Shari Lukas implored her daughter to offer something else: her time.
“When I was in kindergarten, I didn’t know why that was important,” Lukas says. “My mom thought, ‘Hey, you should give up your time because that’s actually a part of your life.’ Kindergarten is when it started — from that learning moment from my mom.”
Lukas began volunteering once a week at Lent soup nights, serving her community and her parish. She started her work with the local church by running around placing salt and pepper shakers on tables and became more involved with the process of preparing meals over time. Forty days soon became 13 years.
“My parents wanted to provide me with these opportunities to help people,” Lukas says. “I was very privileged growing up. There were lots of opportunities given to me. I have the ability to affect others in a positive way.”
In seventh grade, Shari presented her daughter, still an active volunteer with her church, with a new avenue of giving back — the National Charity League. NCL, a nonprofit philanthropic organization, is a six-year commitment undertaken by mothers and daughters that highlights community service by creating opportunities to volunteer with various charities.
Becoming involved with NCL, however, went beyond joining just another volunteer force. For Lukas, NCL was another stepping stone that fostered her ever-growing appreciation for giving back. Coordinating with local Bay Area organizations provided her with a myriad of opportunities to do what she loved. Most importantly, Lukas’ work with NCL put her in contact with an organization that would later find a unique place in her life: the Special Olympics.
“It combined my love for working with special needs kids with sports, which was really cool,” Lukas says. “This was the biggest thing that I focused on — not because I felt like I need to do this, but because it just felt so good doing it.”
Lukas’ primary tasks with the Special Olympics were staging track meets and helping to give awards to participants, some of whom were her classmates. Over three years, Lukas volunteered for a series of nine meets. For a gifted sprinter who broke two high school records, these events were not only another chance for Lukas to give her time but to see this sport from a perspective she hadn’t known existed. As a track athlete, she soon recognized a semblance between the meets she competed in and the meets she helped put together. The athletes Lukas cheered for harbored the same drive she did.
“I think the athletes inspired her,” Shari says. “It was inspiring for her to see these kids who had different struggles and still get out and compete with that same competitive spirit — that same happiness.”
During her sophomore year of high school, Lukas encountered something that would eventually become a passion project. One day, after class, one of her teachers mentioned that Connie Schempp, Foothill High School’s speech language pathologist, was looking for volunteers to help work on speech and socialization skills for special needs students. Lukas was one of two students whom the teacher had recommended to Schempp.
Schempp, whom Lukas refers to as her mentor, mainly worked with a diverse group of special needs students in special day classes. At her teacher’s suggestion, Lukas joined a small group of others in the leadership program, which focused on encouraging special needs students to interact and to leave the sphere of their owns worlds in order to engage with others. Schempp says that the leaders in this program usually change annually. Lukas stayed for three years.
For those three years, Lukas ate lunch with these students once a week — students whom she also saw in the classroom and around campus. The groups tended to be small — about five students — making the program leaders more accessible and personal relationships easier to form. Being the same age as the students provided Lukas with common ground to begin forging friendships. The first step was to get past the barriers that would arise upon first meeting these students.
“In some ways, she’s very quiet, and then when you step back and allow her to be her, she jumps right in,” Schempp said. “I think that’s what surprised me — to see how comfortable and natural she is working with kids.”
When she first began working with the students, Lukas discovered that the challenge would be persuading them to become comfortable around her — to let her into the worlds they had built. Asking simple questions about everything from how their days went to Star Wars’ trivia became especially important.
“It wasn’t like I was a teacher and they were my students,” Lukas says. “It was getting them to interact and the small things, like making eye contact and asking questions, that they didn’t have developed quite yet.”
As her tenure in Schempp’s program continued, Lukas’ role as a mentor-type figure gradually expanded. Lukas later helped arrange events, such as dances and parties, to promote the merging of students within the program with those of the general population.
In Schempp’s 10 years at Foothill High, Lukas remains the one among the handful of students who has had a strong impact on the program. It became clear that Lukas’ unadulterated enthusiasm for the students she spent time with was infectious. One year, the groups had to relocate to a larger classroom due to the sheer number of students who wanted to work with Lukas.
“They would gravitate to her,” Schempp says. “I offered to give her community service hours, write a letter of recommendation or do something for her resume, and she just goes, ‘I’m doing this because I want to do this.’ That’s tremendous.”
The groups often met in the career center, adjacent to Schempp’s office. Often, Schempp would choose to leave the meetings in the hands of her student mentors, opting to facilitate a more natural environment and to give students the chance to interact with one another. As both Lukas and her students opened up to one another, these meetings evolved into more than just dates on a calendar.
“I could hear their interactions through the wall, and I was very impressed with how comfortable and innovative she became and how the students enjoyed her,” Schempp says.
A student named Jenna still stands out to Lukas. At first hesitant to talk to Lukas, Jenna gradually eased into their friendship and showed a willingness to open up. Later, Jenna began to draw pictures for Lukas and wanted her to keep them. What had never felt like an obligation suddenly felt like a reward.
“They’re so lovable, and once that barrier is broken, it’s just endless conversation,” Lukas says. “I think I was teaching them, but at the same time, I’ve felt like they taught me a lot more. Little things they find so valuable, I take for granted all the time. That puts everything I do now in perspective.”
The fast-paced nature of college has inevitably made it more difficult for Lukas to stay in touch with these students. But visits back home have become both a chance to see her family and to catch up with some of the most important people in her high school career.
Of course, beginning college has opened new doors for Lukas. As a freshman on the women’s soccer team, Lukas is working to find time for everything she wants to pursue. She is an active participant on the Golden Bear Advisory Committee, which is composed of about 10 percent of UC Berkeley’s student-athlete population and emphasizes community outreach and leadership. Lukas is also hoping to get in touch with Berkeley High School to continue her work with special needs students.
“Because it was such a huge part of my life in middle school and high school, it’d be weird not to do anything now,” Lukas says. “I’m trying to get everything figured out, and I just want to stay involved.”
This time, 40 days won’t be enough.
Michelle Lee covers women’s soccer. Contact her at [email protected].