For 10-year-old James Ratkovsky, volunteering is a way of life. Dance and theater round out this fifth-grader’s busy schedule.

“Helping others is rewarding in my heart. It feels really nice.”

It isn’t often you hear words such as these from a 10-year-old boy, but James Ratkovsky isn’t like other kids. For this Vandenberg Elementary fifth-grader, volunteering is a way of life. His schedule is packed so full of activities, it’s difficult for the family to keep up with them all. Mom Susan says it’s always been this way.

“James is a kind-hearted boy who cares for others and is a friend to everyone he meets,” she gushes proudly. “He has always been very nice and gotten along with everybody.” Dad Jim echoes that sentiment, describing his son in terms such as “level-headed,” “respectful,” and “non-judgmental.”

James’ roster of volunteer activities includes delivering care packages to seniors in assisted living facilities; participating in the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes fundraiser for WAVI to help support victims of domestic violence; distributing backpacks for a Back-to-School Roundup at Ellsworth Air Force Base; planting community gardens for his 4-H club, the Rushmore Riders and Explorers; and placing hats and scarves on the City of Presidents statues in downtown Rapid City to assist the homeless during the cold winter months.

With such a busy schedule you would think James couldn’t possibly have time for anything else, but his true passion is dance. He began his seventh year with On Your Toes Dance Studio in Rapid City this fall and has been dancing competitively for three years, performing a number of different styles including hip-hop, jazz, and lyrical—his favorite. He especially enjoys the holiday recitals because they help people get into the Christmas spirit and are more relaxed than other performances.

“I enjoy all the people there,” James says. “I’ve made lots of friends. I like being able to be myself and not have to work as hard as I do in school. It just kind of flows!”

Dance is only one pastime for this natural-born performer. James also enjoys theater and loves the rush of being onstage. He was the youngest cast member in an ACTS production of Newsies, playing Tommy Boy; he has also performed with the Missoula Children’s Theater for the past three years and attended Black Hills Performing Arts camp last summer, playing a guard in their Rockin’ Robin Hood production at Hill City High School. It’s a toss-up over which activity James prefers.

“I like them both the same,” he says diplomatically. “It’s hard to dance without words and it’s hard to sing without dancing.”

Not only do Jim and Susan support their son’s extracurricular activities fully; they are frequent participants themselves. Jim helped him distribute “May Day” care packages and potted plants for 4-H, and the whole family took a cruise to Mexico in October, choosing Carnival Cruise Lines in part because of their strong affiliation with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. While aboard the ship, they took part in Groove for St. Jude, a program in which they donated money toward finding a cure for children’s cancer and received a t-shirt and wristband in return—and got to dance.

“We’re not the ‘drop-off-at-the-door’ parents,” Susan says with a laugh.

How does the family manage to balance all of James’ activities with everyday responsibilities like work and school and getting dinner on the table?

“Through lots of communication!” says Susan. “We couldn’t function without an electronic calendar.”

“Sometimes I have to eat mac ‘n cheese from a box,” James adds.

When he has free time, James enjoys playing video games and working on art projects. When he grows up, he envisions becoming a teacher or an architect.

Regardless of what this bright young boy decides to pursue, there’s no doubt he’ll continue to be an inspiration to the many lives he touches.

words by Mark Petruska
photos by Jesse Brown Nelson