When Justin Uhlenbrock first worked with his church at the Tray Lee Community Center on the east side of Columbus, he had no idea he would cultivate a relationship with the children there.
“The first time I was here for only half a day and I think it was just the energy of the kids,” Uhlenbrock said. “I thought I could have a real impact on them, helping the kids. I saw that in that brief amount of time.”
“He fell in love with the center last summer and wanted to come back,” said Marie Moreland, director of the community center.
But Uhlenbrock, a New Albany High School senior, did more than just go back. He wrote a plan to educate the children about healthy lifestyles and nutritional gardening and decided he could help tutor them in mathematics and spelling.
He will use the plan for his senior seminar project, a graduation requirement at New Albany High School.
“When we started talking about his senior project, he wanted to come back (to the community center) because he had had a really great experience with the (New Albany Church of the Resurrection),” said Uhlenbrock’s mother, Elizabeth. “It made me feel good that he chose this place.”
Uhlenbrock said many students use their projects to better themselves or prepare for careers.
Instead, “I really wanted to help make a difference in other people’s lives,” he said.
The senior seminar project requires students to spend 80 hours on the project and document their work. Uhlenbrock said he had no trouble spending 80 hours at the Tray Lee Community Center.
“I was here most of the summer, about four days a week,” he said.
Uhlenbrock showed the 50 children in the community center’s summer program how to make a salad using vegetables they grew in their garden and talked to them about the cost of growing their own food.
He demonstrated healthy recreational activities and joined the children in bowling, playing basketball and four square, one of their favorite games.
Uhlenbrock said he moved to New Albany when he was 4 years old, and the Tray Lee Community Center, 1362 Sigsbee Ave., showed him a different lifestyle.
“Life is very different here,” he said. “It made me realize how fortunate I was and I learned what people think about different places.”
Because of his efforts, Moreland nominated him for the annual Paul B. Redman Youth Leadership award from the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens’ Women’s Board.
“For a young man, he’s very impressive,” Moreland said.
On Aug. 22, a surprised Uhlenbrock accepted the award, which carries a $250 cash prize. In his spur-of-the-moment acceptance speech, Uhlenbrock said he wanted the money to go to the center.
Moreland said she politely refused.
“For you to even think that, we love you so much,” Moreland told him. “But we want you to have that.”
Though Uhlenbrock began with the idea of helping others through his project, he said he benefited significantly from it.
“The kids really changed my life, with their energy, their work ethic and their values,” he said.
Uhlenbrock said he plans to go to college but hasn’t decided on a career path.
Whatever he ends up doing, he said, places such as the Tray Lee Community Center will never be far away.
“No matter what job I do, I’m always going to be doing community service,” he said.