Leading the future leaders: Teacher inspires students to be active in community, give to others

There are many reasons people decide to become educators. For Kari Petraiuolo of Centerville, it’s the joy of teaching and watching students grow and learn to become leaders.

“I grew up in Miamisburg and graduated from Alter High School,” Petraiuolo said. “My first job was at the Miamisburg pool where I became a lifeguard.”

Petraiuolo would also have an opportunity to teach swimming lessons to youngsters at the pool — equipping them with an important lifesaving skill.

After graduating from Alter in 2008, Petraiuolo knew she wanted to go to college to study education.

“I originally was thinking I wanted to teach social studies and history in middle school,” she said. “But after observing classes I decided I’d have more impact at the high school level.

Petraiuolo studied social studies education at the University of Kentucky and then went to the University of Dayton to get her teaching certification and master’s degree. She did her student teaching at Belmont High School.

“My first teaching job was at St. Anthony school down the street from Belmont High School,” Petraiuolo said. “I ended up teaching 7th and 8th grade for three years.”

Calling her time at St. Anthony a “great experience,” Petraiuolo said she also learned a lot about kids of middle school age. She went on from there to teach at Lehman Catholic High School in Sidney and in 2019, was hired at Xenia High School.

“I was a new teacher at Xenia going into 2020,” Petraiuolo said, “The pandemic made it a rough year.”

Soon after she joined the faculty at Xenia High School, she was presented with another opportunity that would ultimately shape her life — to teach the leadership class and become involved with the student council.

“When I was asked to take over the leadership program, I said ‘yes’ right away,” Petraiuolo said. “I wanted to be involved not only with the students, but also with the community.”

Xenia High School’s leadership program, also known as student council, is made up of sophomores, juniors and seniors. The group works together to promote positive attitudes and cooperation between faculty and students and to provide opportunities for volunteer service to both the school and the community.

“We learn different skills on how to become successful leaders,” Petraiuolo said.

One important program that was already in place when Petraiuolo took over the leadership program is called “Baskets for Battle,” designed to support cancer patients by providing them with comfort items while they are receiving treatment.

“The program was started by a student about 10 years before I started teaching in Xenia,” Petraiuolo said. “The student had a family member going through chemo and the students in leadership class wanted to help.”

Petraiuolo’s first Baskets for Battle deliveries happened shortly before Christmas in 2019 when the students went to local hospitals and met patients personally. But 2020 looked different due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic made our process more difficult,” Petraiuolo said. “We raised all the donations in November but couldn’t deliver our baskets in person to the hospitals. Since we technically weren’t in school, the students drove the baskets around themselves and dropped them off.”

The group of leadership students raises money and puts together between 150 and 200 baskets each year. They are delivered to Kettering Medical Center, Miami Valley South, Soin Medical Center and the Dayton VA Medical Center.

“Because it’s been going on for so long, local businesses know we will be asking for donations,” Petraiuolo said. “Everyone is very supportive.”

The students usually request items that will help patients feel better as they go through cancer treatment such as blankets, hats and gloves, socks, craft items and puzzles. As the students put the baskets together, they always add personal note cards.

The process for becoming a member of the leadership group is a bit different from that of traditional student councils.

“Interested students turn in applications for the leadership class,” Petraiuolo said. “And they describe what they think a leader is and how they would like to lead. The seniors run for positions like president, vice president and secretary but even if they don’t win, they remain in the leadership class.”

About 15–20 students are involved in the leadership class each year. And of all the activities available to the students, most say they enjoy the Baskets for Battle program the most.

“They want to be involved because they want to help others and make a difference,” Petraiuolo said. “They like being challenged and they look forward to becoming leaders in their future careers.”

The program is unique to Xenia High School, but Petraiuolo said she knows students who are hoping to take the idea with them when they go on to college. One such student has already started a baskets program at Ohio State University that is small but growing.

“It’s so meaningful to see these young people grow,” Petraiuolo said. “It feels great to help them build a sense of accomplishment and simply become better humans. The students are the real heroes in all of this.”

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