The past few generations of Americans, including my students and myself, has been criticized for the lack of community involvement relative to the John F. Kennedy era of “ask what you can do for your country.” The nostalgia attached to this latter era seems to come from the many older adults who seem to believe that we will never again give back to our communities so selflessly. While I agree that recent generations have fallen short of this great call to patriotism and national service, I also see tremendous efforts within our schools to bring service back into our students’ lives. My school is just one example of how, when given the opportunity to serve, students truly do rise to the occasion.
I believe that my school puts a lot of energy into giving our students opportunities to get involved outside of our school building. In fact, this year is one of the first times we have required that our eighth grade students complete 20 community service hours before eighth grade promotion. Students are able to complete their hours by participating in several events that we organize throughout the school year—or by seeking opportunities outside of what we offer. For example, this past weekend we organized a group of students to participate in a 5K run/walk to benefit a local community health insurance program. We had almost a dozen eighth graders sign up and train with us over two weeks before the race; furthermore, we were able to secure “sponsors” from different staff members so that our students could participate free of charge and contribute donations to the cause. Despite the cold temperatures and early start time, we had students successfully complete the race and earn medals in their 14 and under age group. This race was a great way for our students to overcome a personal challenge while also seeing how their efforts make a difference in our community.
Our school’s dedication to community service is also seen in our celebration of “Make a Difference Day,” which will be on Thursday October 22nd of this year. Each grade level will be out of the building that day and performing community service. For example, last year we had students paint a mural in a worn down pedestrian tunnel under a nearby highway. We also had our special education students visit nursing homes to perform songs and skits for the residents. Last year’s seventh graders created posters to organize a “Candy for Soldiers” campaign around our school, in which we collected hard nonperishable candies to send overseas to our military. It was inspiring to see our entire student body engaged in community service that day, and I look forward to seeing that same dedication from our students this year. Although we are still deciding which community service opportunities we will participate in, I know that our students will be meaningful involved somewhere in Saint Louis.
After thinking about how community service works in my school, I realize that our students need help seeking out the kinds of meaningful service opportunities that inspire them to be lifelong volunteers. In today’s world of Blackberry Storms, IPod touches, Bebo, Facebook, and countless other forms of technology and media, it is important that we teachers are innovative in getting students involved. We need to find creative ways to get our students “hooked” on giving back. I think what made our 5K run/walk so successful is that it was a different form of community service than our students were used to. They had a chance to use their athletic talents as young people to raise money and awareness for a community issue. Last year’s Make a Difference Day activities also drew upon our students’ strengths: that mural under the highway, for instance, allowed many of our artistic students to showcase their skills in a new way. I believe that if we can continue to get this generation of young people involved in such new and exciting ways, we can definitely recreate the culture of community service that existed several decades ago.
If you are interested in finding community service projects for adolescents, please check out these websites for more information: www.dosomething.org and www.volunteermatch.org. Both of these organizations are dedicated to getting more of our students involved in giving back to their communities.
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