SAVANNAH, Ga. – District employees may notice him parading the lobby in festive Halloween wear or encouraging participation in the latest American Society of Military Comptrollers offering. However, they may be unaware that off-duty, Canton Gardenhire possesses a similar finesse for volunteer service.
Not only is he active in the district, but deeply embedded in the community volunteering for educational, recreational and social programs intended to serve vulnerable populations.
Gardenhire, an Internal Review specialist, currently devotes two Wednesdays each month to the Starbase program. Starbase, a Department of Defense educational initiative, exposes at-risk youth to the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines. The program is part of a national current to sculpt a highly educated and skilled American workforce needed to compete in a globalized job market, according to the Starbase website.
Savannah’s Starbase program began in 2012 operating in elementary and middle schools located on Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield, said Tonya Troup-Spurlock, deputy director of Starbase Savannah. Addressing a void in afterschool programs that promote STEM principles, the program has expanded to 12 K-8 private and public schools in the Savannah area.
The opportunity was a clarion call for Gardenhire. He joined in the fall of 2014 to work as a volunteer at DeRenne Middle School in Savannah. The school’s officials take measures to improve academic performance through scholarly recognition programs, lowering teacher-to-student ratios, and implementing supplemental programs, such as Starbase, to target disciplines needing extra attention.
“DeRenne was chosen for its location and student population,” said Troup-Spurlock. “It houses inner-city students of Savannah that are eager to learn in the areas that we specialize in.”
Volunteers collaborate with students on projects covering physics, chemistry sciences, technology, engineering, mathematics operations and applications and STEM careers. Volunteers also have the autonomy to customize learning objectives and activities.
Gardenhire said the experience departs from his professional area of expertise but satisfies his appetite for civic engagement.
“It’s a challenge for me because I have to present information to students who may or may not be interested in the subjects we cover,” he said. “I don’t specialize in the scientific or technical fields, but the advantage of working in the Corps is that I can go to those employees who do and use them as resources.”
Gardenhire typically toggles between 6-12 students during the one-hour afterschool sessions that run October through May. Each session is designed to engage students through creative, hands-on activities such as constructing catapults, preparing presentations on robots, and other STEM-related activities.
The experience for volunteer and student is symbiotic because activities reinforce the often complex STEM concepts for students, and advances the volunteer’s personal and professional development.
“The students have had a profound impact on me,” he said. “It pushes me to present information in a way that resonates with children. It also helps me with my public speaking skills because I teach and coach other people, and occasionally give presentations at work.”
Though Gardenhire said he enjoys integrating his professional experience with volunteerism, he contends that working with students is riddled with challenges. For example, while technology communicates ideas during sessions, he often runs into the “21st century problem” of competing with technology, he said.
“The students may be distracted by their cell phones or other sites on the Internet,” he said. “They can have short attention spans. The challenge is to stimulate their interest and reach more of those ‘a-ha!’ moments.”
Those moments of cognizance reassure his time investment – an investment he hopes endures beyond the students’ post-educational years, he said.
Additionally, apart from the program’s curriculum, he strategizes ways to nurture the students’ social well-being, he said.
“The students are empowered to make choices and solve problems on their own,” he said. “I allow them to help each other because I want them to feel like they are contributing to the process.”
Sixth-grade student Jabria attended the April 1 Starbase session. She helped another student research robots online for a presentation scheduled at the end of the session.
“My favorite part of the program was building catapults,” she said. “Canton is funny and helps us understand the material better.”
Troup-Spurlock augmented Jabria’s thoughts.
“Canton has a big heart,” she said. “He’s flexible, caring and always eager to make a difference in the lives of students. He understands the nature of providing the at-risk population an opportunity to expand their knowledge and gain new experiences. I can sense that he has had a similar experience in his childhood, hence his desire to give.”
Gardenhire revealed that his desire to be involved in educational afterschool programs as a student is a catalyst for his involvement in the Starbase program. He stayed active by joining school clubs such as the Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) and Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA), and competing in sports such as track and football. He doesn’t, however, recall a concerted push to promote STEM careers as a student, he said.
“I remember winning a sixth-grade science fair award,” he said. “But there was nothing like [Starbase] when I was in middle school,”
In addition to Starbase, he serves as volunteer assistant coach of Savannah’s Forsyth Flyers – a sports team for youth ages 5-14, a CPR instructor at the American Red Cross, volunteer with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, and a search and rescue team member with the Chatham Emergency Management Agency, he said.
Though he juggles his free time among several neighborhood organizations, he said he plans to continue volunteering with Starbase Savannah for the upcoming school year.
“It’s a great program that I hope to grow with,” he said. “I have ideas I’d like to implement to expand the program. With any project you’re a part of, you’re always looking for ways to improve things.”
He may not don a service member’s uniform, but the Starbase students at DeRenne seemed appreciative of his time and uttered a resounding “thank you” at the conclusion of the session.
To learn more about the Starbase program, please visit http://dodstarbase.org/.