Nineteen years after her death at age 15, the legacy of Emma Welter endures at Vanguard College Preparatory School.

Every spring, the about 200 students at the Waco private school for grades seven through 12 devote half a day to serving their community and honoring Emma, who died in a car wreck on her way to volunteer for the annual “Viking Volunteer Day.”

Emma had just gotten her learner’s permit and had her mother and brother with her in the car while she was driving to school on Feb. 9, 2000, when a dump truck hit the vehicle, according to Tribune-Herald archives. She died an hour later at the hospital.

A year later, the school named the service day after Emma to honor her generous spirit, and Friday, the students continued the tradition of service under a cloudless spring sky.

“There are so many opportunities in this community to give back to the community,” Head of School Bill Borg said. “If you don’t build habits early on in life, you’re not nearly as inclined to do them when you get older. We think introducing them to why you give back and why it’s important to help others is just part of what we do here.”

Students volunteered at 17 locations across Waco, from Mission Waco to Habitat for Humanity to Cameron Park Zoo. Some cleaned or pulled weeds. Others filed paperwork or helped organize offices.

Junior Aaron Leonard spent Friday morning at My Brother’s Keeper Homeless Shelter, operated by Mission Waco, cleaning bathrooms, sweeping and pulling weeds in the garden. He said the nonprofit was grateful for the help because it does not employ custodial staff, and volunteers are the facility’s only cleaners.

This was Aaron’s first Emma’s Day, as a recent transplant from China Spring. He said he enjoys volunteering wherever he is.

“I really think that people should help the community whenever they get a chance,” Aaron said. “Emma’s Day isn’t just about volunteering. It’s about coming together as a school and helping the community and building bonds with other people.”

Senior Hannah Brunner volunteered at the Carleen Bright Arboretum in Woodway, helping mulch trails that had been washed out by recent rains.

“It’s definitely a lot of fun. You get to bond with people from other grades and learn new names,” Brunner said. “It makes the community better for future generations, as well as gives older generations something to be proud of.”

Senior Trey Hooker stayed at Vanguard to help chop up and move a fallen tree on campus. Most seniors stay on campus to help with the noon cookout, but Hannah requested to go off campus for her last Emma’s Day.

Trey said he enjoys volunteering with friends and learning about the various organizations the students help. As an Eagle Scout, community service comes naturally to him.

“It doesn’t feel like working to me,” he said.

Borg, the head of school for the past 12 years, said Vanguard values soft skills students learn while volunteering and working together as much as the hard skills they acquire in class.

“We want them to be a well-rounded young adult,” he said. “Not everybody’s going to want to work with Friends for Life. Not everybody’s going to want to go down and restock the pantries, but they’ll find something if we give them those opportunities to see the depth and breadth of what’s available. They’ll find something that’s a passion for them, and they’ll continue to do that once they’ve gone off into what we all refer to as the ‘real world.’”

Brooke Crum joined the Tribune-Herald as the education reporter in January 2019. She has worked for the Springfield News-Leader in Missouri, Abilene Reporter-News, Beaumont Enterprise and the Port Arthur News. Crum graduated from TCU in Fort Worth.

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