WLHS students volunteer their time to raise $50,000 to help a 5-year-old

At a time of year when so many birds have flown south for the winter, one little sparrow has roosted at West Linn High School. His name is Benny, and he’s a 5-year-old boy.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSH KULLA - Benny Hartley visits West Linn High School Nov. 15 with his parents, Jim and Deborah.Born with Down syndrome, Benny was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in September.

He is the son of Deborah and Jim Hartley of Molalla, and the students of WLHS have adopted the whole family. Students are dedicating community service hours to Benny through a program called Sparrow Club that connects volunteer workers with sponsors willing to donate $10 per hour of service performed.

The school’s leadership classes, along with their teacher Butch Self, provided the impetus for the project, and their first goal was to introduce Benny and his family to the entire school community. They met that goal Nov. 15 when Benny and his parents attended two assemblies in the WLHS auditorium.

Junior Laura Pyeatt was involved in organizing volunteer opportunities such as writing letters to troops, reading books to young children and providing assistance to the school’s janitorial crew. No matter what volunteer activities students engage in, as long as they log their hours using an official form that’s readily available at the school, their efforts benefit Benny.

“Everything we make goes to Benny,” Pyeatt said.

“Sparrow predetermines what is acceptable as community service,” Self said. “It’s pretty specific, but it’s a broad approach.”

Sparrow beneficiaries must have life-threatening conditions and financial need. Although Benny is not from West Linn, he does have a tie to the community.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSH KULLA - West Linn High School teacher Butch Self explains to students how they can log their community service hours to benefit their sparrow, Benny.“My wife is the reading specialist in Molalla where Benny goes to school,” Self said. “Reaching out to Benny creates a larger sense of community.”

Benny’s mother didn’t want Benny to be known only because of his leukemia. She also wanted to use the Sparrow opportunity to shine a light on Down syndrome, and WLHS students have responded enthusiastically. They are planning a carnival this spring for special needs children. It will have a theme that reflects Benny’s favorite movie, “Shrek.”

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSH KULLA - Jim Hartley, with son, Benny, and wife, Deborah, addresses students during an assembly Nov. 15.Emma Waibel, a junior, serves as the Associated Student Body’s director of major projects this year, and she was one of the first WLHS students to meet Benny.

“Benny is super bubbly, not shy,” she said. “He’s not verbal but you can tell he’s super smart. He signs and communicates with us in other ways.”

“The thing (the Hartley family is) excited about is to have the whole community behind them. They were touched that the whole community of West Linn is going to be behind Benny,” Self said.

The students set an ambitious goal of $50,000 and asked the WLHS student body of 1,600 to pledge five hours of service per person.

“We’re expecting a lot more,” Self said. “The money’s not just coming from corporations. We’re going to do some general fundraising too.”

“There’s the Benny part of this and there’s another part that intrigues me and the students and the family: That’s giving time,” Self said. “One thing that’s appealing about Sparrow is having students give their time to the community.”

“We’re not asking families to write a check. We’re reaching out to everyone in the community,” Waibel said.

Benny’s family appreciates the financial support, although they saw that Benny had something to offer the high school students too.

“I talked to (Self) on the phone,” Deborah Hartley said. “He explained that it’s not just about Benny. It’s about the kids opening their eyes. It was all around win-win.”

“It’s amazing to see what kids do. We saw this as a great opportunity for kids,” Jim Hartley said.

The financial assistance was welcome, too, of course.

“It would help,” Jim Hartley said. “We have insurance, but it’s a high premium. You have to meet a deductible.”

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSH KULLA - Benny isnt bothered by his time in the limelight at West Linn High School. While at the school, he met some of the students who are donating service hours to benefit his family.Deborah Hartley was taking time off from her job to care for Benny, taking advantage of the family medical leave of absence policy and a personal leave of absence. Although he has responded well to treatment and is considered to be in remission, his medical needs are far from over.

“We still have two years of maintenance,” Jim Hartley said. “He’s in the highest remission he can be. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still cancer cells.”

Because he has Down syndrome, Benny was in a high-risk group at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. After a 30-day stay in the hospital, he was receiving daily treatment at home. When he visited WLHS with his family Nov. 15, he was receiving two chemotherapy treatments each day.

“He’s had some rough spots and some not so rough,” Benny’s dad said. “He seems to be doing pretty good.”

At the assemblies, Benny’s bright smile captivated students, and they expressed a willingness to support him with community service. The first official week of Sparrow service activities started Dec. 16.

“During this week, we’ll have an activity every single day,” Waibel told her fellow students during the assembly. “It’s really important to learn to volunteer and how to help the community. We want everyone in the community to be excited about this and to be invested in Benny.”

“Anytime we can go outside the walls of our school, it’s an awesome opportunity for us,” WLHS Principal Lou Bailey said.

Learn more about Sparrow Clubs at To learn more about the sparrow project at WLHS, contact Self at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow the students’ activities on Twitter: @BucksForBenny.

Reach Kate Hoots at 503-636-1281, ext. 112 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow her on Twitter: @CommuniKater.

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