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Omaha Magazine

Award-Winning Service and Sanctuary: Mount Michael Senior Honored for Scatter Joy Acres Volunteerism

Aug 31, 2020 04:41PM ● By Jenna Gabrial Gallagher
Jackson Heller with alpacas

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This past May, Tim Heller planned to pick up his son Jackson’s belongings from school by himself, and was a bit surprised when head of Mount Michael Benedictine High School David Peters, Ed.D., casually requested Jackson come along.

What shocked them was receiving a letter signed with an illegible scrawl bearing a gold seal and the words “The White House.”

The younger Heller, a senior at Mount Michael, was awarded the President’s Volunteer Service Points of Light Award, which honors individuals who have given more than 100 hours of service that positively impacts communities and inspires others to serve. Heller was given this in conjunction with the Prudential Spirit of Community Certificate of Excellence, which recognizes youth volunteers (grades 5-12) in each state. Prudential recognizes 450 students nationwide with this certificate.

“It was a total surprise,” Tim said. “We submitted the applications last fall and never heard anything back.”

The Hellers were not the only people surprised by this.

“I’ve been here nine years, and I can’t remember another kid in that time who’s gotten [a Prudential Award],” Peters said. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mount Michael, like most schools, was not able to hold a recognition ceremony to honor their students’ achievements at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, so Heller’s awards were not met with the fanfare they traditionally merit.

Heller, who was referred to as “humble” by Peters, accepted the certificate and then continued the service he performed to qualify for the certificate—volunteering at Scatter Joy Acres, a nonprofit ranch for homeless animals.

“Fun fact about camels,” noted Heller, who has volunteered at Scatter Joy since age 13. “They enjoy Cheetos and Gatorade.”

It’s one of the things Heller likes to tell people when he helps escort Zebediah, the ranch’s dromedary camel, around Omaha for ambassador visits—or Hump Day Walkabouts, as they’re called at Scatter Joy Acres.

It’s the inspiring others part that resonates the most with Heller. “Jackson has always been very helpful to his teachers and other students,” Peters said, adding that Heller embodies the Benedictine commitment to serving others. “We expect our students to do a certain amount of service each year, but Jackson is one of our many students who go above and beyond. He’s a kid who thinks of others.”

On the ranch, one of Heller’s favorite responsibilities is taking Scatter Joy’s younger visitors for tractor rides around the property and telling them about the animals that live there. In fact, his niece and nephew have already caught the volunteering spirit from him. “They love it out here. The older ones like to help out with the goats and puppies.” 

The ranch has been the site of a lot of generational bonding for the Heller family. The camel barn was named in honor of Jackson’s grandmother, who had a special affection for the humped animals, and Tim acts as the ranch’s PR director and is often onsite, helping to educate people about the animals and the farm. Father and son even have a pet name for one of Scatter Joy’s more unusual species, the bashful, herbivorous Patagonian mara. “We call it the ROUS, because it looks like a Rodent of Unusual Size from the movie The Princess Bride,” Jackson said.

Joy Bartling, who founded Scatter Joy Acres 14 years ago (the ranch moved to its current location in 2014), said it’s not unusual for teens and volunteers of all ages to find a second home there. “It’s a place of rescue for the animals, but also a place where volunteers can find peace,” said Bartling, who grew up on a farm and often sought solace among animals herself. “There’s always plenty to do here and I can’t be everywhere, so I delegate jobs to the volunteers who can do them as well as I can. People take that to heart and it’s empowering for them.”

As a high school student, Heller has certainly faced some resilience-testing life events: first the 2019 floods that had a serious impact on the Mount Michael community; then the current COVID-19 pandemic that resulted in prolonged school closures last spring and uncertainty about this academic year. As Peters pointed out, “After March, we just never got back together for the school year. We weren’t even able to hold graduation until July,” Peters explained.

Regardless of so many things changing, Heller’s commitment to Scatter Joy Acres, four hours a day, three days a week, has been a constant. Although he’s switched his future career goal from wildlife zoologist to criminal justice lawyer—and has many other interests including playing piano, performing in plays, and volunteering in local political campaigns—he plans to keep it that way. 

“I see myself always doing some kind of volunteer work with animals. It gives me a chance to get away from it all, and also give back to the community,” Heller said, adding, “It makes me feel hopeful.” 

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This article was printed in the September 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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