When Nicole Polanco moved to Naperville just before starting eighth grade, she saw a sign at the nearby DuPage Children's Museum that said: Volunteers needed.
She took that message to heart.
Four years later, Polanco has totaled nearly 100 hours of volunteer service to the institution.
"I love kids, and when I came here I didn't know anybody," said Polanco, now a senior at Naperville North High School. "This was a place I could meet volunteers who were at the same school as me.
"I stuck with it. I'm really at home here."
She has worked as a greeter, an art studio aide, a birthday party helper and more. She hopes all the hours spent at the museum will help her get into the college of her choice — her No. 1 pick is Duke University in Durham, N.C.
But before she leaves for college, she wants to give back to the museum.
Polanco decided to do so by organizing a car wash and bake sale fundraiser originally scheduled for this past weekend. She set up the date and time, secured a sponsor to donate supplies, and coordinated teen volunteers to wash cars and parent volunteers to bake goodies.
Fortunately, she also set a rain date. Saturday's rain postoponed the fundraiser until Sept. 25.
Polanco's supervisor, volunteer coordinator Diane Ernst, was on hand Saturday to help out and take pictures. She said she is impressed by the teenager's organizational skills.
"We are delighted that Nicole has taken on this leadership role," Ernst said. "We provide training and encouragement to all our teen volunteers to develop their work skills, have fun and make a difference to the children in their community."
Polanco has indeed had fun during her time at the museum.
She recalled helping with a child's first birthday party. It was Elmo-themed, right down to the cake. Polanco had to wedge the cake into the freezer, and it almost didn't fit. Then someone asked, "Where's the Elmo costume?"
Polanco was confused. Then a staff member directed her to a storage area.
"In the back there was this huge Elmo head," Polanco said, holding her hands apart to about the width of a beach ball. "The dad wore it. This was a full-on Elmo costume — the head, the body, everything."
Outside of volunteer work at the museum, Polanco is busy with school activities. She's an advertising manager for Naperville North's school newspaper, she dances in the Orchesis troupe, she's a member of the French Honor Society, and she has gone through the school's First Class Leadership program.
Her advice to other young people hoping to volunteer?
"Just do it," she said.
"Take the risk — even if it's just as little as greeting for two hours a week," she said. "They will train you. If you like it, ask if you can do more. From there, it just snowballs."
Anyone wanting to help support the museum will have another chance to get a car wash from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 25, at the DuPage Children's Museum, 301 N. Washington St., in Naperville. Car washes cost $4 in advance at the visitor services desk. They will cost $5 on the day of the event. All proceeds will benefit museum programs.