WHITING – At 16, you might expect to find Reagan Klapak playing video games or exchanging social media posts with his friends, but he’ll more likely be found helping with a food drive or fundraising for an organization that matches military veterans with service dogs.
That’s the reason the First Catholic Slovak Ladies Association recently presented him with its National Youth of the Year Award for 2022.
“If there’s anything you need done, he’ll be there,” said Jen Klapak, Reagan’s proud mother and a member of FCSLA Senior Branch 81, the Whiting chapter of the FCSLA Helen Kocan District, which encompasses Lake County. Reagan himself is a member of Junior Branch 58, and while many of the Whiting High School sophomore’s community service projects relate to the FCSLA, others do not.
“I guess I’ve just had a sense of community since a young age,” said Reagan. “The FCSLA matches my values, so I help them collect donations for less fortunate families and help with fundraising projects.” He’s active, for instance, in the annual Race for Education at St. John the Baptist School in Whiting, his alma mater and the school where Jen Klapak teaches. The fundraising event helps purchase technology materials for the school.
While he plays baseball and football at WHS, and plans to try out for the basketball team, he is also active in the Spanish Club. At St. John the Baptist parish, he is a PHYRE Youth Ministry member and altar server trainer. Two years after graduating, he still dons the costume to become “Troy the Trojan” mascot for SJB school, and gets up early to serve as the parade marshal at the Whiting Fourth of July Parade.
“He’s designed new certificates for the annual pet blessing, helped clean the church, takes donations to the Whiting Animal Shelter and helps at church and community festivals,” said Jen. “If there is a parking lot involved, Reagan is there.”
“Community service really helps expand your viewpoint, make friends through a shared experience and see other parts of life,” said Reagan, who received his award plaque at an FCSLA bowling event in Griffith last month.
Both Ed and Jen Klapak remember when their only child turned eight and asked that instead of buying him birthday presents, his guests make donations go Pets for Vets, a Chicago nonprofit that matches military veterans with trained service dogs that help them deal with PTSD.
Ed Klapak said he didn’t even know how Reagan had learned about the project. He asked for donations for Pets for Vets again this year, when he turned 16.
“These are all things he does on his own,” agreed Jen Klapak, who admits that she and her husband “try to give back” as both coaches and volunteer parents, but don’t push their son to volunteer. “He gets his buddies to go with him and makes it sound like fun. He wants to get other people involved in service and doesn’t want anything for himself.”
While Reagan, an Honor Roll student chosen to attend a National Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Program at Villanova University as an eighth grader, hasn’t decided on a career, he is considering joining the military and is eying an aerospace engineering program at Purdue University. “I definitely want to continue volunteering and helping people, maybe by helping construct homes for people as an engineer,” he said.
Reagan was nominated for the national award by Branch 81 member Nancy Dunn, whose two sons are his childhood friends. “My sons do service work, too, but Reagan goes that extra mile all the time,” said Dunn. “Everyone wants to boost their own children, but when I saw the criteria for this award, Reagan just popped into my head.
“I thought (nominating him) was the least I could do for all he does for others; he’s got so much heart and he’s always smiling, taking everything in stride. Sometimes you just know you need to do something, and this was one of those times. I had no idea my nomination would earn him the award, but he certainly deserves it.”
Ed Klapak’s favorite story involves an Easter Egg Hunt that he took six-year-old Reagan to, held at Whiting Park. “They just drop the eggs all over and turn the kids loose and they run and collect all the eggs they can. It’s over in less than a minute,” recalled Ed, a teacher and coach at Hammond Central High School. “After all the kids started leaving, I was yards away and saw Reagan near a child probably half his age who hadn’t found even one egg and was looking into his empty bucket. The next thing I knew, Reagan was pouring half of his eggs into the other boy’s bucket, without anyone prompting him. He just keeps continuing to help people. He is so caring.”
Caption: Reagan Klapak (third from right), recipient of the FCSLA 2022 National Youth of the Year Award, displays his plaque with (left to right) Rebecca Coleman, president of FCSLA Branch #81 in Whiting; Annette Markovich, financial secretary; Patty Bielak of Branch #184; Mary Beth Markovich, recording secretary; and Judy Byron-Mojzik, auditor. (Provided photo)