Charity Begins at School
Community Service Initiatives Prepare Kids to Be Giving Adults
Many secondary schools around the country are making community outreach a bigger part of school life. In some cases, volunteer work has become as integral a part of the curriculum as math and English. And while other schools may not require community service, they provide support and guidance to kids who have a desire to reach out to the community.
Service work gives young people a way to look beyond themselves and explore what they can do for other people and the world at large. Kids who were polled in the Independent Sector’s 2002 report, “Engaging Youth in Lifelong Service,” listed a variety of personal benefits they received from volunteering, including increased patience and respect for others; satisfaction from helping others; the ability to get along with and relate to others; and a deeper understanding of people with backgrounds different from their own.
“It’s something that everyone can do, and it should be a part of our culture,” says Carrie Fischbein, director of the 92nd Street Y Teen Center in New York. Fischbein feels that this is a positive trend because it reinforces the idea that helping others is good.
Through its teen center, the 92nd Street Y, a large cultural, educational and community center, helps New York City high school students fulfill service requirements for graduation. The kids can choose from a range of volunteer opportunities, including cooking for needy families, helping out in homeless shelters and teaching art to underprivileged children.
Getting Kids on the Giving Path
The above schools are just a few of the many institutions actively promoting community service among young people today. But does early involvement in charitable work produce more charitable adults?
According to the Independent Sector report, adults who performed community service as youth are twice as likely to volunteer as those who had no early exposure to volunteerism. The report also found that young volunteers grow up to give more than their nonvolunteering peers—regardless of income or age group.
However, Dr. Paul Schervish, Director of the Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy, says that childhood service works better when it grows from a child’s desire to help rather than from a program requirement. “It’s difficult to mandate volunteerism and expect it to lead to a genuine attitude of giving,” he says.
He adds, that is what some college admission boards are missing when they place too great an importance on community service. “The major teacher of care is identification with the fate of others,” Schervish says. “And that is taught in many places, including the home.”
Still, Fischbein, who works closely with the students at the Y, says they have become more charitable in the course of the program. “I think the kids would do it even if it weren’t required,” she says. “It becomes a priority after they’ve experienced it.”
Harvard-Westlake Middle School (Los Angeles, CA) - This Los Angeles-area prep school starts promoting volunteerism at a young age. Seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-graders are required to complete 12 hours of service. If the kids can’t make the school-sponsored trips, then they’re allowed to complete the requirements on their own. Some volunteer opportunities are geared toward specific grade levels, but others are open to all grades.
In the course of their time at the school, students have the chance to serve with such organizations as Pet Orphans, AIDS Walk, the Revlon Run/Walk for women’s cancers, as well as to provide service in the areas of juvenile diabetes, convalescent homes, foster children, and more. Victoria Goddard, head of the Community and Work Service program for the school, says the goal is to have students go beyond their own comfort zone. “We want to show them that they really can make a difference,” she says.
Organizations like the 92nd Street Y can help schools with the administration of service programs, but there are plenty of schools that handle their own programs. Here’s a look at how three different schools are helping their students learn about the value of volunteerism.
Phillips Exeter Academy (Exeter, NH) - Students at this New England prep school are not required to participate in community service, but many do through several on-campus clubs and organizations. “Exeter students are making a difference and in the process, enhancing their own lives,” says Acting Principal Tom Hassan.
The Exeter Social Service Organization (ESSO) encompasses 18 programs that provide everything from entertainment programs for nursery schools to snow shoveling for the elderly. ESSO also sponsors a food pantry. “Best Buddies,” an international organization that pairs students with local teens with intellectual and developmental disabilities, now has a New Hampshire chapter, thanks to a former Exeter student. Finally, “Big Sib Little Sib” is a program that was established by Asian students who wanted to reach out to adopted Asian children, providing them with a “big sibling.”
Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) - Four years ago, the nation’s second-largest school district made community service a requirement for graduation. “We feel like it allows for the application of the individual subject areas,” says Denice Cantillon, a specialist in LAUSD’s Service Learning department.
The program has had its biggest impact in helping to increase science and social science test scores. With only six weeks to complete a project of their choosing (including research and reporting time), students have taken on issues like school water safety, gang violence, and wildlife protection. Cantillon says the students’ work has inspired support from area universities, as well as financial backing from institutions like Washington Mutual.
Kenneth Heaton is a freelance writer based in Maplewood, New Jersey.
Copyright 2005, Community Foundations of America. All rights reserved.