I like helping little kids. It's really fun. They're really cute. —Sarah Ortega
MIDVALE – Sometimes, Sarah Ortega’s gift of service is as simple as handing out stickers to preschoolers.
But other times, the 12-year-old West Valley City girl translates for Spanish-speaking families taking part in health screening clinics offered by Salt Lake Community Action Program Head Start.
“I like helping little kids. It’s really fun. They’re really cute,” Ortega said.
Like 4-year-old Mylee Tarrillo Nordin, who stopped at the vision screening booth at a health fair at Copperview Recreation Center where Ortega was volunteering this past week.
As the little girl was asked to identify shapes on the eye chart – such as a house or an umbrella – Ortega leaned in close to listen to her responses.
When the preschooler correctly identified an umbrella, Ortega cheered and directed her to the next task.
Ortega, who will enter seventh grade this fall, has a deft touch with young children, says Connie Saddler, health and family partnership coordinator for Salt Lake CAP Head Start.
The health clinics, where children in Head Start programs and those entering kindergarten undergo baseline medical, dental and vision screenings, need bilingual volunteers, Saddler said. “I’d say 45 percent of the people who come to us speak Spanish,” she said.
Ortega’s youth is also a boon, she said.
“I think when you are young, you still have that connection to that age group,” Saddler said.
Recently, Ortega’s volunteer efforts were recognized by the Kohl’s Cares Scholarship Program. She was among two local youths who were awarded $1,000 scholarships.
The program also honored Eric Babb of Highland for organizing a volunteer effort to control invasive, non-native plants in his area. He recruited 2,000 volunteers to pull weeds, a Kohl’s press release said.
The scholarships are awarded to youth who demonstrate “initiative, leadership and generosity.”
For Ortega, volunteering at Head Start is a way to give back. She and her two older sisters are alumni of the program.
Their mother, Laura Ortega, volunteered in her eldest child’s Head Start classroom at the Hal J. Shultz campus in South Salt Lake.
“I learned English with my daughter in her classroom,” said Ortega, a legal resident from Mexico.
Laura Ortega is now employed by the agency, where she works in a data-entry position.
“I really love Head Start. It’s given us so much.”
Now, she encourages her three daughters to give back when they can. “I always teach my girls that this is a great opportunity to serve those who can’t speak for themselves.”
While her daughter’s volunteer effort include translating for Spanish-speaking families, she sometimes helps simply by keeping the clinic atmosphere light.
“I just walk around. If I see kids who are sad or feeling a little bit scared, I try to help them,” she said.
She occasionally uses puppets to entertain children to take their minds off health screenings. If she doesn’t have a puppet handy, she improvises by taking off one of her socks, slipping it over her hand and making it “talk.”
“I just know how little kids act. If they get distracted, they don’t cry,” she said.
The Kohl’s scholarship will help with Ortega with her plans to attend college, she said. She would like to attend either the University of Utah or Brigham Young University, possibly to study architecture. She wants to design and construct buildings where people can play or relax, such as trampoline gyms or movie theaters.
Winning the scholarship, she said, "was awesome, actually."
Her mother brushed back tears as she explained what the scholarship and recognition of Sarah’s gift of “love,” as she puts it, means to her family.
“I’m so proud,” she said, wiping back tears. “I work very hard. They understand that it’s a privilege to serve.”