Community Service in the Family and the Classroom


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Five-year-old Lanie Martin knows the value of community service. Throughout her young life, she has worked alongside her mother, Barbara, to promote kindness and make the world a better place. Lanie has learned that serving others not only helps them, but also brings her joy.

Barbara Martin says she often talks to her daughter about the importance of service, and encourages her to lead a caring life, whether by volunteering at local food banks or picking up trash. As the community service committee chair with the Brier Creek Elementary School PTA, Barbara Martin went one step further and organized an event for the entire school.

More than 500 students partnered with Operation Share House, a project of the Raleigh-based Stop Hunger Now international hunger relief agency, to bundle more than 26,000 meals of a dehydrated, fortified rice-soy mixture for undernourished children in Nigeria. Students came in 45-minute shifts over three days in June to complete the project. Each class listened to a presentation about world hunger before beginning their work, which Martin says drove their desire to help. Then they filled, sealed, weighed and packaged the bags, with a gong sounding in celebration for every 1,000 bags completed.

“They were so excited to hear that gong,” Martin says. “It was absolute joy and chaos. It was like they just won the lottery, and it was great to see the excitement and pride in their faces.”

This project is just one example of a movement among Triangle schools to incorporate community service into curriculum. Many schools are providing opportunities for students to get involved, and some are even instituting service requirements.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has employed the Service Learning framework and encourages schools to engage kids and parents within their communities to supplement the lessons being presented in the classroom.

Service learning includes parents

Carolyn Foxx, coordinator of special projects at N.C. Department of Public Instruction, says that Service Learning reconnects, motivates and fosters a sense of care and concern in the students by providing an outlet to experience the concepts they learn in school and build emotional connections. She says there are two ways teachers incorporate Service Learning: adjusting the curriculum to resolve a pre-determined community need or finding a community need to work on that fits with the existing curriculum.

“There isn’t anyone who’s teaching who can’t connect learning goals with service goals,” she says, adding that parents can work with children and their teachers to enhance civic education. Indeed, parent involvement in community service greatly increases children’s enthusiasm to help others as well as supports academic achievement.

In a study conducted by The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement at the University of Maryland, researchers found that “young people who grow up in a household where someone volunteers are twice as likely to volunteer regularly,” and “students who performed voluntary community service were 19 percentage points more likely to graduate from college than those that did not.”

Foxx says Service Learning programs aim to involve the parents and educate them along with their students. “Service Learning cultivates an atmosphere that says to parents, ‘We want you in and we’re happy that you’re here,’” she says. “We try to tap into the strengths and resources that our parents have by incorporating their expertise and planning.”

Members of the State Board of Education felt strongly enough about it that the board initiated an online resource for students and parents to find ways to give back. At www.ncpublicschools.org/students/getinvolved.html, service seekers can find links to local service organizations, which provide listings of service events and at-home project ideas to make the world a better place.

Local school community service programs

At some Triangle schools, service is as much a part of the curriculum as science. The Carolina Friends School in Durham and Chapel Hill stresses community service at all levels, says Kathleen Davidson, admissions coordinator. Children in the Early School learn the value of service by pursuing the school's motto, "We take care of ourselves, we take care of each other, we take care of our school."

The Middle School recently celebrated its fifth year of the Afghan Sister Schools Program, where students raise money to support schools in Afghanistan and exchange diaries, photographs, artwork and more with Afghan students. At the Upper School, in addition to a requirement of two service-based classes per year, students and teachers engage in an intensive end-of-year session that involves long-term service projects, both on campus and abroad.

In the Wake County Public School System, communications specialist Bill Poston says that while many schools don’t have requirements, students of all levels are encouraged to get involved in their communities.

“The teachers are finding creative ways to link the instruction they are trying to do with actions that will help students better understand the impact of what they are learning,” he says. “Strict lecture is not an easy way for students to absorb information these days, but by being able to actually show them the relevance of what they’re doing — by them having an impact — not only do they learn their lessons, but they also learn important life lessons,” he says. “It makes education real.”

Broughton Magnet High School in Raleigh requires 25 hours of nonprofit service work per year from each student for graduation. Established in 1994, this requirement has become a more positive piece of the students’ education each year, says Jayne VanGraafeiland, Broughton’s community service coordinator.

“We feel that it teaches them to be good citizens,” she says. “[The program] has caused them to be able to see that what they contribute makes a difference.”

VanGraafeiland says the best way to teach the value of service was to mandate the hours but have the students to choose their own projects, allowing them to make emotional connections with their experiences.

“There’s no ifs ands or buts about it,” she says. “You don’t graduate if you don’t do your hours. It’s as much of a requirement as English or math, and it’s been really successful.”

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools also have a community service graduation requirement. It was instituted in 2003 and requires each high school student to complete 50 hours of service before graduation. The district also integrates service learning into the middle and elementary schools by completing projects within teams or individual classes.

“It’s seen as an extension to apply and practice or demonstrate academic skills that are required, while doing something as a good citizen,” says Stephanie Knott, school-community relations officer.

Durham Performance Learning Center, a new virtual high school that will open Aug. 27, 2007, will also mandate that students complete community service hours. Principal Danny Gilfort says the specifics of the requirements have yet to be set, but the administration is hoping to use them to instill in the students the value of helping others. Gilfort says that although the students will take their classes online from home computers, he hopes they will come together to complete their community service requirements.

“In general we want our students to be aware of their roles in their communities and how their schooling is relevant to the communities and the world,” he says.

Helping Kids Connect Elizabeth Jordan, founder of Kids Connect (www.kidsconnectnc.org) and mother of two, says the best way to instill the value of community service in children is to do it with them. She says showing rather than telling encourages kids to emulate their parents’ work with helping others.

Jordan created Kids Connect after her son Jack was born because she was looking for ways to get him involved in service. The Web site serves as a one-stop resource for parents and families to find ways to serve their communities. It also features a calendar of service events, geographically arranged lists of service agencies and resources, and information for parents about how to talk to kids about issues within their communities and what they can do to help.

Jordan says the site has had more than 30,000 hits in its 18 months of operation, and a community of caring, civic-minded people is beginning to develop around it.

“Community building is a big part of it,” she says. “As kids see other kids doing this they learn that together we can do more and be supportive of one another. Everybody has a stake in their community, and everybody cares about where we live, so we’re creating a community within the community of people who share this vision.”

Jordan says it’s never too early to get kids involved in community service. Even simply taking kids along to service projects and letting them watch other people make a difference will inspire them to do the same when they are older because it gives them a small taste of the rewarding feeling of helping.

“I take my kids with me to my service projects,” she says of Jack, 2, and her daughter, Maddux, 9 months. “I try to expose them to as many positive experiences like that as I can. It makes them feel good and brightens their days, and when they get older, I’ll step it up a little bit.”

To parents, she suggests letting the kids do little things, such as taking lunch to Habitat for Humanity sites, so they can interact with people who care.

“There are many pieces to helping others, and teaching kids that the world is bigger than their own backyards is important,” she says. “By doing a positive thing you learn about yourself and feel good about yourself. You learn a lot and it’s fun and empowering to know that you can make a difference.”

Amy Bugno is a senior majoring in Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill and an editorial intern at Carolina Parent.

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