School hasn't started yet, but students in the Aiken High School Rotary Interact Club already have clocked hours of community service over the summer.

In July, members volunteered for the United Way of Aiken County's annual Stuff the Bus project, collecting school supplies for students in need.

On Thursday, they helped with registration at Aiken High. On Saturday, they participated in Adopt-A-Highway, collecting litter along University Parkway in front of the Aiken County Government Center with members of the Aiken Rotary Club, Interact's sponsor.

Interact's motto is the same as the Rotary Club's, “Service before self,” and club members are turning those words into actions at school and in their community.

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Art Lader, who teaches German at Aiken High, sponsors the Aiken High School Rotary Interact Club, a service organization sponsored by the Rotary Club of Aiken.

“The goal of the Aiken High School Rotary Interact Club is to provide students – who already have service in their hearts, who already want to do good in the world, who already have empathy and compassion for others – a way to express that through service,” said Art Lader, who teaches German at Aiken High and is the club's sponsor. “Our students are simply young people – young men and young women – who want to serve, and we give them the opportunity to do that.”

Lader and his wife, Lisa, who also taught German, helped start the club seven years ago, and he took over when his wife retired.

Students – more than 100 Interactors, as the members are known, at Aiken High – pay no dues, attend no mandatory meetings and choose their own level of participation. And any student can join.

“You simply come see me, and if you want to help make your school, your community, your world a better place, you're in,” Lader said. “We'll take you when we can get you. We appreciate any time you can come. We just want to serve.”

And the club gives students lots of opportunities to serve – often as many as two to three projects per week.

Some projects are small. Right after school starts Aug. 19, club members will design “kindness bookmarks” with messages of encouraging words chosen by the students to be distributed in the media center.

“I doubt a bookmark is going to change anyone's life, but it might change someone's day,” Lader said.

Aiken High School Rotary Interact Club Interact adopt a higway

Students in the Aiken High School Rotary Interact Club pick up litter along University Parkway as part of the Adopt-A-Highway project.

Other projects are bigger: serving pancakes at a local restaurant to raise money to combat polio, participating in the Walk to End Alzheimer and volunteering to be bell ringers during Christmas for the Salvation Army of Aiken or helping at the United Way of Aiken County's Run United half-marathon.

The students' participation in these and other programs, such as Adopt-A-Highway, also gives them opportunities to incorporate part of the club's name – Interact – directly into their service: they get to serve – and interact – with Rotarians.

In fact, the Adopt-A-Highway program has become one of the club's “coolest activities simply because the students are doing something with the Rotarians,” Lader said.

“Every interaction they have with these successful people, these community leaders, with people who not only want to get things done but also want to get the right things done – is valuable,” he said. “They think beyond themselves. They think about the needs of the community. They invest their time and their talent in making the world a better place, and they model exactly the behavior we hope we'll see in Aiken High students."

“If you look at the seal of Aiken High School, there's only one word at the bottom. It says character – character,” Lader said. “And you just can't teach character. Character grows. Character evolves in young people.”

All of the thousands of Rotary Interact Clubs around the world have a “joyful obligation,” Lader said, to do at least one international project a year. In the past, Aiken High's projects have included participating in the Walk to End Alzheimer's and sending shoes to Afghanistan.

But Aiken High's club has taken on a new international project: hosting more students from abroad to help build relationships. It's an important kind of diplomacy recognized by the U.S. State Department and part of Aiken High's mission to have a global perspective as the first Cambridge International School in South Carolina, Lader said.

“We want people to come to Aiken High for two or three weeks from abroad to live with us, to get to know us, and after a month, go back home and tell everyone how nice the Americans were, how nice it was in Aiken, how good the people were,” he said. “All we have to do is be gracious. All we have to do is open our homes, open our hearts, for a few days to make relationships. Just being nice to them will be the service project. It's simple, but it's profound.”

Larry Wood covers education for the Aiken Standard.

A native of Aiken, Larry Wood covers education for the Aiken Standard.