By MARINA WATERS
Among the high schoolers still meandering through the halls of David Crockett High School on a slow-moving Wednesday afternoon around 4 o’clock, Zachary Mills stood out in a suit just outside the library, ready to share his story and his heart for volunteering.
“Growing up in Northeast Tennessee, I was raised on stories of how people in the community would come together and help each other in times of need,” Mills wrote in the essay he entered for The Prudent Spirit of Community Award for which he was dubbed an honorable mention for the state of Tennessee. “This was reinforced in me each time someone would begin to tell the story of my premature birth, usually including ‘miracle’ somewhere in the story.”
Today, Mills is the one lending a hand to his community through his volunteer work with school clubs like HOSA, the FIRST Robotics Competition and community organizations such as the work he’s done with multiple ministries and the James H. Quillen VA Medical Center in Johnson City. But there was a time when the high school senior who has logged more than 1,000 volunteer hours throughout the past four years was the reason the community came together.
Mills was born around 23 weeks gestation and had a high probability of long-term intellectual and developmental disabilities. He was born with a hole in his heart, eyes still fused together and was given steroids for his lungs and heart to assist their growth. Mills was also diagnosed with retinopathy of prematurity which can cause blindness.
“I always thought it was neat, the people’s dedication to me because the first 72 hours after I was born was the most critical,” Mills explained. “I thought it was amazing the medical team staff was that dedicated and put in that much time and effort.
“Kind of from that, I want to give back. That’s part of the volunteering, just being able to give your time. I volunteer to give back and I also think it’s going to help me later in life because when you volunteer, you’re learning pretty much how to work for free. You learn how to not want that instant recognition.”
Because of the dedication from the medical staff who treated him as a baby, Mills is aiming for a profession in the medical field, which also inspires him to get hands-on experience at places like the Veteran Affairs hospital. However, Crockett health science teacher and HOSA sponsor Cheri Wolfe said his schedule doesn’t keep him from exceeding expectations.
“He is a very busy student. But you know what? It doesn’t matter what he’s doing, that young man will always make it a point,” Wolfe said. “He will always say, ‘Is there something I can do for you?’ He’ll be the first person I see when I come to class and he’ll be the last person I see when I leave. And he’ll always say, ‘Mrs. Wolfe, is there anything I can do for you?’ If I’ve had a particularly busy day, he’ll say, ‘You look a little stressed. Is there something I could help you with that would make the day go along a little better?’ He’s just always thinking of somebody else before himself. It’s just refreshing. It’s so heartfelt and sincere.”
Part of that sincerity comes out through his personal experience as a premature baby. Wolfe said his experience has only made his work at events like the March for Dimes that that much more meaningful to him.
“I love that he makes it personally his (project) too. For instance, the March for Babies, that was something near and dear to his heart,” Wolfe explained. “He said, ‘Oh yeah, let’s do this.’ Because he had that experience in his life, he felt that much more connected to it.”
Mills hopes to gain experience through the extra work he puts in at places like the VA, but it’s also a way to make a difference in someone’s life in a very immediate way.
“It was just amazing to see how the smallest thing you do (can make a difference),” Mills said. “And you don’t even recognize you do it at first. There’s this one little veteran, he’s just asking where to go and I walked him there, talked to him. Most of the veterans come there for their treatments, but a lot of them don’t even have anyone to talk to. A lot of them come there to talk. I think it’s just amazing the VA has a program like that.”
The VA has also provided the student volunteer with life lessons he will most likely remember for the rest of his life. And these lessons, in addition to his own experience, have most often come through a veteran, much like his grandfather who fought in the Korean War.
“I’ve learned not to take anything for granted,” Mills explained. “Because one day, they go off to war happy, healthy and ready to fight, and they come back and have to get their legs amputated or they have shrapnel.
“One guy was doing work-based therapy and was on move crew with me. He took shrapnel—he was special forces—to the head, bullet through his leg, bullet through his side. But he didn’t ever think that he would ever walk again. One thing he always told me was don’t take anything for granted. He didn’t even expect to walk again, much less get out of the sands.”
Mills has collected many memorable experiences from people like the veterans he’s assisted at the VA, but there’s another story that sticks out in the HOSA president’s mind and further inspires his work; Mills is especially moved by the times in his life when the community came together to help his family, similar to the way in which he aids others in their time of need.
“My grandma, she had five bouts of cancer. She’s had it since she was in her late teens, early 20s,” Mills said. “Every time that there was a treatment that was needed, even though they lived on a farm and didn’t have a whole lot of money at all, money would show up in the mailbox. I think that’s just a community coming together.
“It might be small like shoveling a driveway, but knowing that I can do something that can make somebody’s day better, even if it’s just talking to them, that’s what makes me want to carve out my time—knowing that I can make a difference, hopefully.”