Answering the Call

Jefferson Scholar Michael Atkins Jr. makes volunteerism and community service part of his well-planned future.

For just about as long as he can remember, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences sophomore and Thomas Jefferson Scholar Michael Atkins Jr. has been involved in community service — picking up litter at parks, packaging food for hunger-relief efforts, collecting school supplies for Hurricane Katrina victims, teaching youngsters about health and fitness, running to raise funds for a children’s hospital … . The list goes on.

Earlier this year, thanks to a grant from Nestle’s Best in Youth, he added to that list by bringing a winter-clothes collection project to N.C. State University. The project — which Atkins started with his sister, Brittany, about six years ago — will become an annual event run by Jefferson Scholars.

So far, Michael and Brittany have collected more than 9,000 gloves, scarves, hats and coats at Christmas trees they put in offices, stores and schools in Wayne, Johnston, Lenoir and Wake counties. Following the collections, which they call the Warming Tree Project, they distribute the clothes at places such as soup kitchens, women’s shelters and social services agencies.

The Jefferson Scholars — an elite group of students who pursue majors in the colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Humanities and Social Sciences — regularly participate in community service projects. But they did not have a recurring, annual project of their own, Michael explained. The grant funds will allow them to have such a project, enabling them to buy Christmas trees, signs and advertising.

Atkins hopes that giving back through the Warming Tree Project will be as enriching to his fellow Jefferson Scholars as it has been for him. He recounted one experience he found particularly rewarding, when he distributed collected clothes at a soup kitchen:

“The director … had pointed out a man who was basically desperately in need, and I went up to him and I handed him a pair of gloves, a pair of socks and a coat. And before I could walk off,” Atkins recalled, “he handed me the gloves back. And he said, ‘I already have a pair of these. Give some to someone who really needs them.’

“If people who have so little can give back, then we who live comfortably and are able to get an education — we have the time, and we have the resources,” he said. “We should really make use of those and give back to our community.”
Atkins’ passion for community service hasn’t gone unnoticed. He won the Gold Congressional Award – the highest honor Congress bestows on those under the age of 25 – in part because of his experiences with the Warming Tree Project.

Atkins sets up a Warming Tree in Patterson Hall to collect winter clothing for those in need.

And recently he was named by Gov. Beverly Perdue to the 25- member N.C. Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service.

“Basically I am working on the media and public relations end of the commission, just to spread a spirit of volunteerism and community service across the state of North Carolina,” he said. “And I’m hoping that through my position I can inspire people my age – and people younger and older – to get involved.”

One of the causes Atkins contributes to is particularly close to his heart: Every chance he gets, he speaks up about the need to support not just active-duty troops but also their families. Atkins’ father, M.J. Atkins, a now-retired Air Force senior master sergeant, served in the Persian Gulf War when Michael was an infant. That made life harder for him and his mother, especially since Michael had a life-threatening condition known as an atrial septal defect – a hole between two chambers of his heart.

“During that time, I almost died,” he said. “My mom wasn’t able to get in contact with my dad because he was out on the front lines – he was fighting – and so it was just very difficult. My mom had to raise me and my sister basically by herself. And so she worked two jobs while my dad was overseas.

“By standing up and letting other people know that this is the way that I felt and this is the way things were for me, maybe I can help them realize that [those] who live next door to them whose dad is deployed, well, … maybe they can go next door and see how they are doing, visit with them, maybe even babysit the kids so the spouse can get out of the house and hang out with friends,” Atkins said. “It is just simple things you could do that would mean so much.”

Last summer, Michael was invited by the Thanks USA Foundation – an organization that grants scholarships to military dependents – to speak at a congressional dinner about what military life had been like for him and his family.

And through a 4-H program called Operation Military Kids, Atkins has packaged care kits for military dependents, helped organize classes and summer camps for them and made public service announcements to raise awareness.

Michael’s passion for supporting military families was not the only positive thing to come out of his experience as a heart patient. He had open heart surgery that corrected the condition when he was 10, but as a child, he had to limit his activities and sometimes felt excluded. Through acting, he found ways to participate with other kids and to deal with stress.

So far, he’s been in about 40 plays, ranging from lighthearted musicals to dramas about such somber topics as the Holocaust.

“When you get onstage and you are under those lights, you are another person. You are the character that you are supposed to be playing, and if you really throw yourself into the part, the problems that you were having when you walked on stage don’t seem to exist anymore,” he said.

Looking ahead, Michael said he hopes to become more involved with drama and student government at N.C. State. During his freshman year, he mainly focused on academics. He is working on two majors: Through CALS, he’s studying applied sociology, and through CHASS, he plans to major in political science, with a concentration in law and theory.

“If I go the law route,” he said, “I would like to become a corporate attorney and represent a pharmaceutical company before stepping into the political arena.”

His “ultimate goal,” as he puts it, is to be elected President of the United States in 2028 – the first year that he’ll be eligible to run.

“It seems like right now we don’t have a lot of direction with all the things that are going on economically, politically, environmentally. There are just a lot of problems right now in the country, and I feel like we need strong leadership,” he said. “I’m very passionate about my position on different political views, and I feel like I could really make a difference in the country. Politics is something that I think I could really grab onto and give a lot of myself to.”

And, as his experience proves, giving of himself is perhaps what Atkins does best.

–Dee Shore

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