Ardent volunteer wins high praise

Staff WriterJune 22, 2003 

CHAPEL HILL -- The way Chandler Vatavuk prefers to see it, getting smashed in the mouth with a metal baseball bat was a valuable life experience.

"Living through pain and adversity ultimately is a good thing," says Vatavuk, 21, a rising senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, "because you grow as a person."

He was a Durham seventh-grader in 1995 when someone's careless swing loosened half of Vatavuk's teeth and left the others on the field, jammed through his lip or embedded in the roof of his bloody mouth.

Surgical efforts to save his reimplanted teeth included two years of biweekly root canals and continued as recently as this spring. His teeth are straight, finally, but he hasn't grown too attached to them. A few weeks ago as he was hosting a call-in show on the campus TV network, a capped tooth popped out of his mouth.

"I kept on talking, with a big gap," Vatavuk says now, with a smile that is even again. "I spoke with a lisp for a while."

Even during his painful middle school years, friends and family say Vatavuk's injury never distracted him from a career of community service that dates from his 10th birthday. Recognized in Durham, in Raleigh and recently in Washington as a tireless volunteer and relentless advocate for volunteerism, Vatavuk has given thousands of hours to needy children and troubled teens from East Durham to Eastern Europe.

A FedEx packet from the White House early last year announced that he was one of 50 finalists -- out of 3,500 nominees -- for the nation's highest volunteer service award. He told his mother he didn't want to return the paperwork confirming his interest in the honor.

"He said, 'They shouldn't consider me for this award, for two reasons,' " Betsy Vatavuk says. " 'Because I don't do what I do for awards, and because I'm too young. They should choose someone who is older.' "

He relented after a follow-up call from the White House. In December, he was the youngest of 20 Americans who received the President's Community Volunteer Award.

Vatavuk's volunteer projects have included tutoring and mentoring low-income students, and helping first offenders get a second chance in Durham's Teen Court. He has campaigned for drug and dropout prevention, and he has pumped $4,000 into a need-based scholarship fund. He has collected toys, food, clothing and other items for flood victims and homeless, orphaned and impoverished children in Durham and abroad.

Grand role models

His inspiration was his maternal grandmother, a longtime schoolteacher who taught him to read and to do numbers when he was 3 years old. She would visit her struggling students at their homes, on weekends, to help them catch up.

"My father and mother both were 4-H leaders for about 40 years in Durham, and they did a lot of volunteering, mentoring and tutoring all their lives," Betsy Vatavuk says. "Chandler saw a lot of their love and caring for people. I think he really got the insight from hearing them talk about helping people and seeing them help people."

The day he turned 10, Vatavuk canceled his birthday party. Instead, he joined his teachers from Hope Elementary School on a trip to a Morreene Road public housing neighborhood, where they tutored children who needed help with their reading.

"That really changed his life, that day," his mother says. "Ever since, he's been working with kids."

A few years later, Vatavuk was speaking at a violence-prevention "teen summit," where he met Jane E. Volland, then director of Durham's Teen Court. While in high school, he became a leading figure in the program, and he continues to serve as an adviser.

Along with other young people who served as lawyers, judges and jurors, Vatavuk worked with several hundred young offenders who just needed some positive peer pressure.

"He wasn't just excited about the concept -- he was eager to do the work," says Volland, now administrator of the N.C. Guardian Ad Litem Program. "He would represent his client zealously. Whether it was shoplifting or a misdemeanor assault case, Chandler would have an understanding of the person, besides just the facts and the charges in the case. I could always depend on him to be there and to be prepared."

Spreading his rewards

Using prize money that came with awards he received for his volunteer work, and with money he made from farmers market bake sales, Vatavuk endowed a 4-H scholarship fund named for his grandparents. Eight low-income high school students have received $500 each from the fund since 1998.

TV news reports during the Bosnia war in 1999 alerted Vatavuk to the plight of orphans in Kosovo.

"The children were going through so much over there, and it seemed they were being forgotten," he says. "I wanted to help them out and try to brighten their lives to any extent that I could."

His campaign began with stuffed animals and grew to include clothing, school supplies and eyeglasses. He found that Bayer Corp. had $350,000 in overstocked Flintstone vitamins to offer. The goods were handled by the Red Cross and the Billy Graham Ministries. A year later, flipping through a Graham Ministries publication, he spotted a photo of a child clutching one of the stuffed animals he had collected out in Durham.

"It was nice to see that," he said. "I didn't know if I was reaching the kids or not."

That's a frequent question for people considering whether to become volunteers, he says. Can they really make a difference? For his answer, he draws on a reservoir of optimism and empathy.

"Granted, you only have a certain amount of time to give. But you always should think of it positively and optimistically. Whatever you're doing, you're providing attention, care and love to a child who needs it. ...

"Over the years, I've seen a lot of impoverished, inner-city kids who weren't getting the love they need at home, a lot of kids looking for help," Vatavuk says. "I remember one kid who had both parents in jail, and he was being raised by an uncle.

"And I think: If I were in that situation, where would I be today?"

Staff writer Bruce Siceloff can be reached at 829-4527 or bsicelof@newsobserver.com.

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