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Senior’s International Efforts to Help Others Influence School Culture

Emily Macalka sees parallels between helping people in the Dominican Republic and her volunteer work in the Comstock Park High School special education classroom.

Both experiences have helped the 2015 graduate appreciate what she has and brought happiness to those around her, she said.

Emily is a busy teenager. She spent her senior year singing in a band, running cross-country, completing the Kent Career Technical Institute Health Sciences Early College Academy and serving in Student Leadership as class president. She recently played Little Red Riding Hood in the school’s production of the musical “Into the Woods.” She also volunteered in teacher Keith Baker’s special education Life Skills class, tutoring, helping students learn to cook and caring for the classroom bunny.

But outside of school, Emily focuses on raising money to purchase water filters to equip villages in the Dominican Republic with clean water. For the third year in a row, she will spend a week this summer in the Caribbean nation helping install 40 filters. At a cost of $115 each, the filters save lives by sanitizing drinking water.

“I really like helping wherever I can,” said the ponytailed brunette, who graduated May 28.

Days earlier, when stepping into the special education class, she was greeted with hugs and cheery hellos. She’s known in the school for giving back and thinking of others before herself, administrators said.

Emily is a recipient of this year’s Comstock Park High School Principal’s Leadership Award, chosen by Principal Steve Gough. Her willingness to help others everywhere she goes is the reason she’s featured in School News Network’s series on student leaders.

“With my experiences I’ve been able to help my friends understand we have all this great stuff and we should appreciate it,” Emily said.

Emily Macalka volunteers with special education students at Comstock Park High School
Emily Macalka volunteers with special education students at Comstock Park High School

A New Perspective

The Dominican Republic trips involve a group from St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids, which works throughout the year to raise money for filters. The church partners with the nonprofit organization Thirsting to Serve. Emily recently helped organized the H2OPE Concert, involving 18 local acts including her band, Stronghold, that helped raise money toward the cause.

Visiting the Dominican Republic is eye-opening, Emily said.

“When you get there, everything is dirty. Here, we take a lot for granted. Our streets are clean; we have a sewage system; we can get water from the tap,” she said. “The people are super grateful for us being there. We bring them hope.”

Special education teacher Keith Baker also participates in the mission trip, and has seen Emily in action in his classroom and the Dominican Republic.

“I think she leads by example. She’s very accepting of others. She treats everyone the same. She’s very outgoing and friendly,” Baker said. “I don’t think she does anything anyone can’t do. The difference is she actually does it.”

She especially shines with children during the trips, he said.

“She has a desire to help others. The children gravitate to her. She is like a rock star when she is down there.”

Devoting Her Future to Helping

Emily is attending the University of Kentucky as a pre-medicine student this fall. She hopes to become a missionary doctor.

Gough said Emily was recommended by staff members and the School Leadership Team for the leadership award.

“We look for seniors who have demonstrated significant leadership qualities and contributed back to the school culture of the building. Emily absolutely fits that definition as well as anybody who has come before her.”

Emily’s involvement helps others realize what they can do to improve the school and the world.

“Her experiences clearly helped her understand how much we have here and how much we should not take what we have for granted,” Gough said. “That has a positive impact on our student culture. The more students who understand that concept, the more productive our student culture is going to be.”


Thirsting to Serve

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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