It was mid-December, shortly before Christmas vacation. The elementary and middle school students had just finished their annual Christmas carol performance at the local senior center. Teachers handed cards to their students, and the children started visiting people in the audience. I proudly watched one of my students, an 8-year-old girl, hesitantly approach an elderly woman in a wheelchair, holding out a handmade card and introducing herself. “I made this for you,” she said with a charming, shy smile. She was rewarded with friendly words of gratitude and questions about her life at school.
Every year, her school, the Principled Academy in San Leandro, California, practices songs for a holiday performance in December at the senior center. Teachers prepare their students by demonstrating how to interact with the elderly, and the children practice conversations in advance of the event. Some of the students have had no experience around grandparents, so teachers suggest topics that are good conversation starters. In my second grade class, I’d tell students that seniors may want to share about their childhood holiday experiences or their favorite subject in grade school. I guaranteed that the cards they decorated with seasonal themes and holiday wishes would be greatly appreciated.
After the concert, students are given a writing assignment in which they describe what it felt like to visit the seniors and bring them the gift of music, friendly conversation, and homemade cards. Every year, the students, teachers, and parents see the smiles and hear lots of encouraging words—“come back next year”—and that always stimulates a desire to keep on giving. Sometimes, the older students revisit the senior center to interact with the residents. This experience is living proof that caring for others brings out the best in all people, children included!
What has been described here is called service learning, which has become part of the curriculum in some schools. It combines service to the community with student learning in a way that improves both the student and the community. The hopeful outcome is that students can develop a civic consciousness, a desire to help those who are needy, lonely, and suffering. The seeds can be planted at an early age, when children are in grade school. My young students learned that they can make a meaningful contribution. They don’t have to be adults to do that. Psychologist Allan Luks, in his book, “The Healing Power of Doing Good,” states that helping others can “improve physical and psychological health, as well as enhancing feelings of spiritual well-being.” Perhaps some of our best memories as adults are those in which we were able to give to those in need.
Children may be isolated from the suffering of our world. They might not understand that some people, including children their age, are hungry and don’t have enough to eat at home. When students collect cans of food for the local food bank, or fundraise for UNICEF, they act with the knowledge that they are helping those who are less fortunate than themselves. Teachers schedule lessons and activities that raise awareness of hunger. Middle school children visit and help out at the local food bank. As they work side by side with others who freely give their time to support the charity, they see firsthand the value and necessity of service. They learn that without these volunteers, people would go hungry. Hopefully, these children will grow up with a desire to solve some of our societal problems or at least contribute their skills to help others who are needy.
How can we promote service learning in our communities? It’s important for families and schools to choose age-appropriate service learning projects and to be consistent, performing acts of service on a regular basis. Older students, middle and high school age, can strengthen research skills by looking into local service opportunities. Teams of students can plan the projects and implementation strategies. Once they choose and draft a proposal, they can carry it out and evaluate its effectiveness afterward.
Schools have successfully implemented an array of service learning projects. Here are a few ideas for teachers and parents to consider. Children can make care packages for soldiers, create cards of appreciation and encouragement for veterans, build survival kits for the homeless with items like soap, toothpaste, and other essentials, raise funds through bake sales for selected charities, collect new and used books to donate to a local children’s hospital—the list of possibilities is endless! Doing the work is inspiring, especially when it’s linked with learning. When the Principled Academy had a schoolwide project to collect money for UNICEF, a speaker from that organization did a presentation about UNICEF’s goals. Once they understood more about the situation of impoverished families, students gained a new focus when trick-or-treating. They still got their candy, but they also raised funds, providing assistance to others less fortunate.
Doing good works multiplies. The desire to help others can be passed down from one generation to the next through teachers who incorporate service learning into their lesson plans and activities, parents who inspire their children by doing service together with the family, and adult role models who include children in their civic activities. The work that my mother did in a ghetto touched my life profoundly. She brought me to the first Head Start program in Rochester, New York, where she was a preschool teacher for children of impoverished families. When we drove into the neighborhood, the first thing I noticed was the pungent smell of a mustard factory. People on the sidewalks looked miserable, and I saw garbage and litter everywhere. What a contrast to my home in a rural area with clean air and beautiful nature. The sounds, sights, and smells of poverty filled me with a longing to make a difference in the lives of these families, and I knew the memories of that time would always be with me.
That experience inspired me as an adult to start a nonprofit to help the homeless in Oakland, California, in 2019. The genesis for this startup was in a coffee shop when a friend and I started talking about how our mothers’ charitable activities impacted our lives. To honor the mothers we respected so much, and carry on their legacy, we began a food and clothing outreach program in one of the worst neighborhoods in Oakland. It brought back memories of my childhood experiences in the ghetto with my mother, giving some care and love to young children and their families experiencing the pain of poverty. I felt a deep satisfaction that at least my friend and I were able to do something to help the homeless living in tents in the neighborhood there.
At schools that incorporate service learning into their curriculum, children read about the lives of people who have found happiness and meaning in their work of living for the sake of others. Mother Teresa is one such role model who never fails to inspire. In her words: “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” We all admire Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who educates about the value of service: “Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve. … This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a good place for all of us to live in. … I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.” These famous people were children once, who learned about giving from their role models. Someone nourished and watered that seed of compassion and enabled them to inspire multitudes around the world.