Southold girl heads to Hawaii to mentor homeless teens

06/09/2011 3:55 AM |

COURTESY PHOTO | Brittany Dzugas-Smith of Southold (right), currently a student at Landmark School in Massachusetts, is bound for Hawaii this summer to help orphaned children improve their reading skills. Here she poses in Boston’s Chinatown area with her aunt Liana Bass Dzugas, who was adopted as an infant by Brittany’s grandmother.

Not many years ago, Brittany Dzugas-Smith, 16, was struggling with her studies in Southold and that lead to an out-of-district placement at Landmark School in Prides Crossing, MA.

She’s come a long way in tackling her learning difficulties, so far in fact that she and a classmate will spend four weeks in Hawaii this summer teaching orphaned children to read. What’s more, they’re paying for the privilege.

It’s all part of Project Hawaii’s teen mentoring program that enables teens to develop their leadership skills “while enhancing the lives of homeless children,” according to the information provided by the sponsoring organization.

The students had to raise $13,000 to pay for the experience and pass a rigorous admissions screening to be accepted into program. That included a review of their grades and obtaining a recommendation from Landmark teachers. Each student also had to pen an essay about what they expected to learn from the experience.

“Going to Hawaii means that I can brighten the day for little children who have been living hopeless lives,” Brittany wrote in hers. “Here is my chance to use my happy energy towards making these little children happy and joyful like me.”

Recalling that some of the happiest times in her own childhood were when her parents — Donna Dzugas-Smith and Steve Smith — read to her and helped her learn to read, she wrote, “I want to be there for these children and give them four weeks that they will never forget and they will take away a few lessons and skills that I teach them.

“Seeing a child smile is so wonderful but then when you know you are the reason they are smiling — expressing their happiness through that grin on their face — you feel so accomplished and proud that you were able to make someone else happy.”

Why Hawaii? Her fellow student’s mother discovered the program. Brittany, schooled by her mother to appreciate the value of travel and interaction with other cultures, easily embraced the idea. She participated in an American sign language course, which she plans to continue as a senior in the fall.

She anticipates returning with a greater appreciation for what she has experienced, both at Landmark and growing up in Southold.

“It’s going to be so much fun and life-changing to do arts and crafts with these children who haven’t experienced the activities that we were given as children,” Brittany said. “I’m so excited to be part of these memories with these children who have been put in a position that no child should be put in — being without guidance and nurturing,” she said.

Brittany started school in Southold and finished seven years, including summer sessions. With recognition that she learns best from hands-on experiences and visual connections to the work, she has done well at Landmark.

This month she was honored as top student in her class, despite an auditory processing problems making it difficult to focus in a mainstream classroom where she was easily distracted.

She participates in the school’s theater productions, girls varsity basketball where she was team captain, a member of the student council, and various community service activities.

The students have raised trip money doing yard work, seeking corporate contributions  and organizing a raffle. On Saturday, June 18, starting at 9 a.m., Brittany will host a yard sale at her home at 2745 Tuckers Lane and she welcomes contributions of items for the sale.

The family will also be selling a riding mower and a player piano — the same piano on which she and her brothers learned to play — to earn money toward the trip.

All contributions are tax-deductible and checks, made payable to Project Hawaii should be sent to P.O. Box 198, Southold, NY 11971.

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