PORTAGE, Mich. (WOOD) — In the chaos of a high schooler’s life, Portage Central junior Nicholas Oudekerk thrives on structure.
He is deliberate in his conversation, organized and concise. Sitting next to his classmate, Audrey Bench, the two talked about the Moose Project.
“It’s just a really chill atmosphere. You don’t need to dedicate yourself you can just come and go as you want,” Oudekerk described the club.
“It’s not really about moose at all,” Bench joked. “Just a fun place, fun time.”
The Moose Project is a student-run group, overseen by a teacher, that helps connect students with disabilities to their peers without.
“It’s honestly just a hangout session where we can just hang out with each other and talk and make memories,” Bench said.
The two called it a sponge for all their problems. Bench insisted the 50-minute after-school meeting, usually held Thursdays, it is a necessary part of her week. She said it’s her time to unwind and find a friend to talk to about the stresses mounting from class.
Oudekerk said he’s never seen her stressed. It’s clear how serious Moose Project interactions are to him. That’s as it should be. After all, he is the president.
“It was just a really exciting opportunity for me because I get to do a lot of things I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise,” Oudekerk said, adding he wasn’t exactly sure why he was chosen as president.
“He likes to make his decisions and lead the club,” Bench said. “It’s never disorganized and he’s always got a plan and strategy for the day.”
They meet in the same room each week, take roll and then Oudekerk leads the group in an icebreaker. In their first meeting this year, there were only eight members, but Oudekerk thinks the number will grow after the hectic return to class slows.
While Oudekerk operates on distinct lines in life, he’s growing because of the blurred ones in the Moose Project. He’s learning that sometimes great leaders aren’t defined by the order they bring but how they learn in the chaos.
“Last year, I was a little too strict. I really wanted to watch a ‘Star Wars’ movie,” Oudekerk, a big fan, recalled.
The group voted for a different movie.
“After that experience, I learned that sometimes we have to be flexible and put other stuff on besides ‘Star Wars,'” he said. “A movie I showed last year near the end of the year was ‘Lilo and Stitch.'”
It may not seem like a major milestone, but for Oudekerk, it is proof of the benefits from the Moose Project: learning to put others before your own needs or wants; reaching beyond the abilities or disabilities and seeing eye-to-eye as classmates and, more importantly, friends.
“I get to be involved with people,” Oudekerk said. “I don’t really get out of the house much so I just look forward to seeing people here.”
The Moose Project is open to any Portage Central student. Its main priorities, according to Bench and Oudekerk, are candy, having fun, and the end-of-the-year retreat to Pretty Lake — Oudekerk says because you get to miss a day of school.