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Puyallup sisters give back to the communityBetsy Fradd

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PUYALLUP, Wash. – What began as a high school volunteer requirement turned into a project of the heart for two Puyallup sisters.

Jacqui Veliz, 18, had agreed to fulfill a senior project at Spanaway Lake High School when she decided to spend time in Kari Chavez’s kindergarten classroom at Chief Leschi Elementary School. Her sister, Jennifer, a 20-year-old at Pierce Community College, wanted to share in the experience. Besides, it meant they could both spend more time with their cousin, Austin, who holds a special place in their lives and enjoys his kindergarten days reading and doing art.

“It’s the highlight of my week,” said Jacqui. “I get to teach the kids about shapes, letters and do craft projects with them. I talk about kindergarten all the time.”

Laughter filled the room as Jacqui and Jennifer built block towers with the students, helped make artistic creations or showed the kindergarteners how to take turns drawing on the whiteboard. When the children read to them, praise and high-fives were constant.

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Chavez said she appreciates the time Jacqui and Jennifer spend with the students. Typically they volunteer three days a week in the afternoon. “Having them here allows me and my assistant, Mr. Mackey, to spend more individual time with each child,” explained Chavez. “We maintain an academic schedule that can be very demanding for kindergarteners. It is so motivating for the children to have Jen and Jacqui express an interest in their reading and math.”

Giving back to their Native community is especially important to the Veliz sisters. “The Puyallup Tribe has provided my family so much,” said Jennifer. “I recognize how much farther we’ve come as a community and I want to invest more in its growth. The best way I can think to contribute is by investing in the education of our future. And, with a kindergarten class so full of potential, I’m sure my investment will provide an excellent yield.”

Chavez applauded the sisters giving their time and talents. “It’s important for the students to have good, positive role models. Chief Leschi is so unique in that it offers an extremely challenging academic program as well as cultural activities which provide an opportunity for kids to grow academically and also understand and value the importance of their community and traditions,” added Chavez.

Both sisters want to remain actively involved at Chief Leschi even after the school year ends. Jacqui intends to volunteer again next year in addition to going to Gene Juarez Academy for her cosmetology license. Jennifer is still deciding which college she’ll attend after completing her studies at Pierce, but she wants to eventually teach high school at Chief Leschi.

“My heritage has instilled important values in my life,” explained Jennifer. “From respect for the earth to honoring my elders, I am proud to be part of the tradition. I think it’s the responsibility of all those benefiting from the programs of the Puyallup Tribe to invest their education back into the community.”