Photos by Dianne Carroll Burdick
Grand Rapids — After school is done for the day at Innovation Central High School, over in a southern wing of the sprawling building near Door K, a group of students happily sweeps hallways, empties trash cans, vacuums carpets and whatever other cleaning might need to be done that day.
All are members of Innovation Central’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corp, or JROTC. None are getting paid for their labor. They saw a need during COVID and an opportunity to help the short-staffed custodial ranks at the school. And they stepped up.
It’s sophomore Isaiah Taylor’s first year as part of the JROTC program, and he couldn’t be happier.
Of JROTC he said, simply, “I love it.”
And of the after-school cleaning commitment he and his fellow cadets have made, he is equally effusive.
“I really, really like it a lot,” he said, eyes sparkling behind his KN95 mask. “I like the work, and I like going around helping, talking with teachers after school. We have a really good time.”
One bonus, Isaiah added, is getting a first-hand look at the commitment of Innovation Central’s teaching staff.
“We put a lot of work into the cleaning,” he said. “But the teachers are here after school just as long as we are. It’s amazing to see the effort they put into us.”
‘We’ll Just Clean It Again Tomorrow’
And though he and his fellow cadets sometimes get discouraged by how dirty the school can get, Isaiah remains upbeat.
With a little laugh, he said: “We’ll look at it during the day and say ‘It’s going to be a mess, but we’ll just clean it again tomorrow.’ That’s all we can do.”
Retired Lt. Col. Pat Kerbuski Jr. has been the lead JROTC instructor at Innovation Central for almost a decade, and he said he still gets emotional when he sees the impact the program has on his cadets.
“It’s an amazing thing to see someone come in kind of quiet and reserved and see them open up and become confident and a leader,” he said. “It usually seems to take about six months, and when it clicks, it is awesome. And when the parents come to us and talk about the difference the program is making for their son or daughter, yeah, that makes it all worthwhile.”
Senior Kyah Beerens is one such daughter. She’s been part of the program since ninth grade, and said JROTC has made a huge difference in her life.
“I’m more confident. The people here are great, and I’ve learned so much.”
Kyah was the battalion commander when the Innovation Central cadets decided to help out their school custodians, and she said she and her fellow cadet leaders were happy to volunteer their JROTC services on behalf of their school and to fulfill the requirement of all JROTC programs that they complete a service-learning project each year.
“Absolutely, we wanted to help,” she said. “And it feels pretty good.”
Building Better Citizens
Junior Tanner Ehlert agreed.
“When we decided we wanted to help we didn’t know exactly what that meant, but we’re cadets, so we took on the challenge,” he said.
Looking around at his fellow cadets in action – seven to 10 students most days – he said: “This is all volunteer. They could be home chilling, watching TV, but they’re here. We want it to look nice.”
Tanner also expressed appreciation for the JROTC program at Innovation Central. He plans to enlist in the Navy or Marines after graduation with an eye toward a career in mechanical engineering someday, and said it wouldn’t be possible for him without the military’s assistance and JROTC.
‘We put a lot of work into the cleaning. But the teachers are here after school just as long as we are. It’s amazing to see the effort they put into us.’– sophomore Isaiah Taylor
Kerbuski noted that if you look at a map of U.S. Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs, the only locations west of Lansing are all in Grand Rapids, and all of them are at Grand Rapids Public Schools.
There are three total – at Innovation Central, Ottawa Hills and Union high schools. Kerbuski said the mission of JROTC at all three high schools is to motivate young people to be better citizens, and education is critical to becoming a better citizen.
The staff support project is a great example of that mission in action, he said.
“As a teacher, it makes you feel good that students are willing to do this,” he said. “They understand what is happening and why it is important to help. It is great to see young people caring about others.”
More’s the Better
ROTC was established nationwide in 1916 to bring military skills to high school students. And GRPS records show that Central High School’s program goes all the way back to 1916, with Union close behind with a program starting in 1921.
Each GRPS school that offers JROTC has two instructors and follows a standardized curriculum which includes coursework in leadership, civics, geography and global awareness, health and wellness, language arts, life skills and U.S. history.
Kerbuski said he and fellow instructor, retired Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Yentsch, are excited to see the growing numbers of Innovation Central students participating in JROTC.
“We believe that JROTC has the power to change lives, so the more young men and young women we can get to be part of this, the better.”