MIDDLEBURY — Standing in the Porter Hospital courtyard on Thursday morning, Ferrisburgh resident Jeff Vigne’s voice cracked just a little, and his wife, Allison, reached out and touched his shoulder to support him.
Vigne was standing in front of about 100 Vergennes Union High School seniors, almost all of them former classmates of his daughter, Taylor, who succumbed to type 1 diabetes at the age of 13 on Oct. 16, 2005.
On Thursday and the previous two mornings, the students and several VUHS staff members had walked in stages to Porter from their school to honor Taylor’s memory and to raise money for the fight against diabetes. They presented the hospital with a $2,500 check at the end the walk. Most wore green T-shirts bearing Taylor’s name, and the roughly 14-mile walk was part of the twice-annual VUHS community service effort.
As difficult a task as it was, Vigne found the words to thank the students for remembering his daughter.
“October is a tough for a lot of people,” he said. “We’re glad to see how many lives she touched.”
In an interview, the Vignes said how moved they were by Class of 2010’s decision to honor Taylor, and the students’ hard work that followed that choice.
“It’s very touching the class does remember Taylor so distinctly,” Jeff Vigne said. “The feedback we’ve gotten has been overwhelming.”
Both also praised the VUHS administration for creating the school’s three-year old “Community Week” that made the students’ effort possible. Jeff Vigne noted that he is a member of the Ferrisburgh Fire Department, one of the many organizations that has benefited from student help.
“It’s been overwhelming how much they’ve been able to accomplish by going out and giving back,” he said. “That will instill the volunteerism into the kids, and I think that’s just great.”
The VUHS Community Weeks occur twice during every school year. While the school’s juniors take required New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests, leaving many courses short of a full roster, other students work on projects for area towns, museums, libraries, churches and farmers. A committee of residents works with VUHS staff members, including Lee Shorey and Cookie Steponaitis, to line up volunteer sites.
Students also visit colleges and local workplaces to get a sense of life after high school. Last week, still others visited Northlands Job Corps to learn about Northlands’ vocational courses.
And the VUHS seniors for the past two years have walked together to raise money for Porter. The class of 2009 supported Porter’s breast cancer program because class member Sarah Bissonette’s mother was stricken with the disease.
On Thursday, VUHS Class of 2010 president Christina Stinchfield said the seniors would be adding to the $2,500, in part because their three-stage walk sparked more interest.
“There have been people stopping on the roads asking how they can pledge. They can just go to our Web site (vuhs.org) and pledge,” Stinchfield said. “It makes me feel really good to know we’re doing something to help other kids out there who are maybe in the same situation Taylor was.”
Senior Cody Hawkins, who knew Taylor well and volunteers with her father on the Ferrisburgh Fire Department, was one of many who were thrilled to be able to do something for the family. Hawkins described why Taylor’s loss affected his peers so deeply.
“She was a great person, very competitive in sports and everything. She was very nice and kind-hearted and everything like that,” he said, adding, “I wish she could be here walking with us, but she can’t, and she’s in our thoughts and prayers every day.”
Hawkins said he also appreciated Community Week.
“I’m glad that the school allows us to do this every year,” he said. “It seems perfect for this, and we’re just glad to be part of it. I know I am.”
Addison senior Gary Grant also backed this year’s effort and the value of the community service projects.
“This is awesome. They just kind of gave us the freedom to do it,” he said. “We can get some money raised ... and do something good with it.”
Grant added that the time on the road also gave the class time to bond.
“This is pretty cool,” he said. “It’s just really nice to get to know everybody well and come together like this.”
Principal Ed Webbley said that the week is also designed to help VUHS juniors with testing. With most students gone during the mornings, distracting bells can be turned off. Juniors also are allowed to take tests in their familiar morning advisory rooms with their advisory teachers, not sitting in rows in the school gyms. Webbley said the message to the junior test-takers is that their efforts are valued, too.
“The original idea behind Community Week was that testing itself is a community service,” he said.
Still, Webbley said the juniors are understandably more excited about their 2010 Community Week project.
“We have juniors already asking what they can do for next year,” Webbley said. “I have a couple of young men who want to do something for veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, which sounds perfect, too. These are kids who are just realizing for the first time they have a chance to impact their community. It’s pretty special.”
In the meantime, Allison Vigne said she was grateful this year’s seniors used Community Week to raise money in Taylor Vigne’s memory.
“She was just an amazing kid, with amazing, amazing friends,” she said. “All of these kids should be so proud of what they do. It’s touching, really touching to see them care so deeply.”