Malibu teen volunteer travels to Guatemala with MUSE School and Mending Kids

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Axel and teammates went to South Dakota to help The Cheyenne River Youth Project on the reservation

Axel Polito also helps developmentally disabled youth learn to surf in Malibu and Lakota youth in South Dakota

By Barbara Burke

Special to The Malibu Times

From the shores of our panoramic Pacific in Malibu, to volunteering at the Cheyenne River Youth Project in South Dakota to help Lakota youth, to supporting small patients facing big surgeries in Guatemala, Malibu’s Axel Polito, 14, lives a life of service, caring, and sharing, and he revels in helping others. 

“Axel is my hero! I admire his fortitude as I’ve seen him come up against every obstacle and get beyond it,” Tim Hazelip, president of the Mighty Underdogs, said about Polito and his volunteering. “Axel is precious — he’s my favorite person in Malibu!”

MUD is a group of dedicated surfers who understand the healing power of surf therapy and of the ocean.

“I’ve helped a couple of little ones to get used to the water,” Polito said. “One of the kids who I helped refused to get in the water, but after a while, I finally got her in with a promise of orange chicken. All the kids are super fun there and no matter if they fall once or twice, they just get back on and then want you to take them back out.” 

As he discusses the benefits to volunteering, school and his future, Polito is unassuming and engaging. Clearly very intelligent, he carefully deliberates before he speaks, and he analyzes issues with a maturity and global perspective that far exceeds his years. Polito simply likes to help others. In a phrase, he feels called to do so. And, importantly and impactfully, he does so joyfully. 

“I think that volunteering can open a new lens into other people’s lives and hardships,” Polito said. “My mom and dad always drive the point home that whenever you can, leave something better than when you first found it. MUSE, the school I go to, also provides great input with regard to how I view volunteering.” 

Most recently, Polito and other MUSE students, chaperoned by human rights teacher Jeffrey Martin, traveled to Guatemala with Mending Kids, a local organization that provides free life-saving surgical care to sick children worldwide by deploying volunteer medical teams and supporting communities to become medically self-sustaining.

“My experience in Guatemala was like no other,” Polito said. “Seeing all those different kids with conditions and playing with them was cool in and of itself, because, when you do something like that, you notice how similar everyone is in the grand scheme of things. 

“Also, after playing with some of the kids, and then going into the surgery rooms and seeing the same kids getting a tumor cut out or a tumor sucked out from their mouths, it really drives home how we are all the same inside and outside and that no matter how big or small you are, good things can happen for you.”

As with any cross-cultural exchange, especially when such a trip is one’s first international trip, there were small hiccups, most notably that Polito is not Spanish-fluent and the kids he worked with in Guatemala and their parents did not speak English. That was not a communication barrier for long. Soon, Polito learned that people find other ways to communicate.

“All the kids and parents were super welcoming and we drew with the kids and made pipe cleaner animals,” He said. “I became proficient in making bears and hearts.”

Clearly, Polito’s big, giving heart has endeared him to Hazelip and Martin, his mentors regarding volunteering.

“Axel has the heart of a lion!” Hazelip said. “He’s a great asset to MUD.” 

Agreeing, Martin notes that MUSE’s service learning trips have shown that Polito is ingrained with the gifts of empathy and patience.

“Axel is one of those quiet people who is a steady force and he’s very easy to travel with because he’s flexible,” Martin said. “Moreover, on our pediatric ENT mission to Guatemala, he displayed a careful patience when playing with the patients and their siblings. He worked with them tirelessly — he never took breaks, and the Guatemalan children were drawn to him.”

Polito also enjoyed helping with the Cheyenne River Youth Project, a South Dakota-based organization dedicated to helping Lakota youth. 

“At the Cheyenne River Youth Project we help with their community center.” Polito explained. 

Specifically, the MUSE student volunteers worked hard at the center, under the careful eyes of Martin and with guidance from project Executive Director Julie Garreau — whom Martin says has done wonders in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, to serve Lakota youth and their families. 

Every evening when students are on volunteer travel, Martin sends parents an update. An example letter for the South Dakota trip was entitled, “Day #4-Taking Initiative, Contributing and Taking Care of each other!” The list of tasks were vast, including working all day and getting ready for time with the younger kids who come for the afternoon program and meal. The parents’ letter informed that “Volunteers packed shampoo, soap and body lotions, made a board game for the afternoon time and arranged for prizes, cleaned rust and gunk off pans, cleaned bison blood out of a large freezer,” and they prepared for Taco Tuesday. Such rudimentary tasks teach volunteers the value of giving to others and of having a greater perspective beyond their own community. Such opportunities empower students to support one another while pursuing a common goal, as well as to gain the skill sets to make sure that they tend to their own needs, while all the while helping others meet their needs.

“Axel is an example of what the program is all about,” Martin said. “Students return from our service trips with a little more maturity and a new appreciation for all of their educational opportunities.”

When asked what his long term goals are, Polito responds, “During adult life, I would love to keep helping anyone that needs it, no matter how big or small the community is. Every Summer, I work at MUD so I think that continuing that for a while would be amazing.”

What else is possibly on the horizon for Polito? 

“After high school, I’m hoping to get into a good college like Yale and get a master’s degree in engineering,” He said, adding, “If I get that far, then I hope to get a job in either computer generated imagery or aerospace engineering.  I also would love to get into something like neurosurgery as that is something I’ve wanted to do since I went to Guatemala.”