Written for Omaha Magazine – http://omahamagazine.com/articles/an-honors-course-%e2%80%a8in-giving/
Jenna Liakos has already learned the immense value of volunteerism in her community—having completed countless volunteer hours contributing her time to the Omaha Warriors (her little sister’s softball team), the Aksarben Ball, and the Bickford House (through All Saints Episcopal Church).
In fact, one of her most valuable experiences, and lasting relationships, has come from working through the Munroe-Meyer Institute and volunteering with their Circle of Friends, a social club for people with autism. She started working with kids who have disabilities because, “my brother volunteered at Munroe-Meyer, then my sister did it and enjoyed it, so I did it and really enjoy it so far.” In this capacity, she works with preschool children all the way up to kids her age. “I like being with the smaller kids, it’s just hilarious. Some of the things that come out of their mouths is so funny.” One girl who she enjoyed volunteering with loved the Husker football team, so she makes the volunteers and other kids stack their hands in a team “huddle.” Liakos enjoys interacting with the kids and their imaginations while doing crafts, exercises, and cooking.
It is Hayden Sommer, however, who has brought her the greatest joy over their four-year friendship. When he first arrived at middle school in fifth grade, he had trouble communicating with others. According to Liakos, since they started working together, “the amount of progress that we’ve seen is really amazing.”
Hayden’s mother, Heidi Sommer, explains, “he’s pretty severe. Back-and-forth communication is quite difficult for him, but when he sees Jenna, you can just tell that he really likes her [by] his smile.” What is great about their relationship is that it has continued to grow outside of just the Circle of Friends, and Liakos continues greeting Hayden daily in the hallways at school. She continues in a gush, “I think what’s really genuine about Jenna is that…as kids get older, you see these relationships kind of derail, and she has not done that. She values everybody, she’s showing kids and adults in the community the way it should be done.”
In fact, during Autism Awareness Month, Liakos and Sommer, along with the other members of the Circle of Friends, put together a public service announcement for PTI (Parent Training and Information) Nebraska, an awareness group for parents of children with disabilities or special health care needs.
While it seems as though she keeps busy with all these volunteer activities, she also competes with a traveling softball team, sings in two show choirs, and participates in musicals. Yet Liakos truly enjoys the time she spends helping others. She says her parents taught her and her siblings, from a young age, to help out in the community and give back to people.
And the tenacious student has it in mind to beat her older siblings’ immense numbers of volunteer hours served by the time she graduates from Westside High School. Her brother, Jonathan, accomplished 400 hours in his time, while sister Victoria completed 300 hours.
Liakos is extremely grateful for all that volunteering has taught her, particularly the lesson “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Having seen those who are struggling and going through difficult times, she has learned to not judge, but rather to listen to everyone’s story. “Some of the stories that I’ve heard from them,” Liakos says, “they’ve changed how I look at people and life.”