Service Learning: What do you get from giving?
Guest Blogger, Lynette McGivern, Director of Service Learning and Leadership
Much is made of the notion that giving makes us feel good, that those who have should give back or that we should do our bit for those less fortunate. However, we don’t talk nearly as much about what we might learn from being with, and working alongside, those we may not regularly interact with or the skills we can acquire or develop when volunteering. Or perhaps most importantly the significant impact that volunteering can have on young people.
This was crystallised for me as a 19 year-old, studying at a U.S university in a small town in the Midwest. We had been ‘volunteered’ to help out at a community and homeless centre one night a week for a month. The services offered included a soup kitchen, some accommodation, assistance for war veterans and they also ran parenting courses –with a crèche for the children. It was there, while helping in the crèche that I met Trey.
Trey was four and full of attitude. I first noticed him after I broke up a fight between him and a boy of similar age over a game of Connect 4. By the time I pulled the 2 small boys apart, the game had degenerated into a wrestle, with Trey on top of the other boy and his hands around his neck. Over the next few weeks I spent a bit of time with Trey, we would read stories and he would make fun of my accent. This was why I was surprised when he jumped from my lap as I went to pick a piece of lint from his hair one night while reading a book. When I coaxed him back, he came back slowly, apprehensively, and parted his hair. His head was full of small sores about the size of a 5c piece. Some were still fresh and red and some were covered in scabs. I asked if he was ok, he said yes, and we finished reading the book.
I was angry. Really angry. And when the children were collected that night I could hardly look at his mother. I told the person managing the crèche what I had seen but she already knew. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘his mom is here doing a parenting course. She has a habit of choosing bad boyfriends. The last one would lock him in the closet when he didn’t want him around and would burn his head with a cigarette if he called to get out.’ I was dumbfounded. How could a mother allow that to happen to her own child? I guess at least she was getting help. Why were there so many homeless people in this small town? Where did the people, who couldn’t get a room at the shelter, sleep in winter when it’s -20 degrees? Who’s paying for all these services? What’s going to happen to these kids? I started asking these questions both there and when I returned home and I started to learn about the marginalised, how they got there and what services exist to help; and I like to think I continue to learn – 20 years later. As a young person, there is no doubt that this had a significant impact on me.
This is what we hope to do with Service Learning & Leadership at Wesley; provide students with the opportunity to have experiences that will leave a significant impact on them. Our programs and experiences are scoped and sequenced across the campus and include fundraising, volunteering, service learning, immersion tours and leadership development in a variety of forms. As a College we have several distinct aims;
- To develop social responsibility in all students and increase their world view.
- To develop personal leadership skills and dispositions in all students, grounded in the College values and motto – “by daring and by doing.”
- To increase personal engagement in communities both locally and globally.
The focus differs between sub-schools. In Junior School the focus is on Awareness. Students are engaged with causes they care about. They learn about issues that affect them both inside and outside of the classroom, and they are encouraged to exhibit behaviours in line with the College values. Already this year the Junior School raised awareness of and celebrated International Women’s Day, engaging students in developing an understanding of a global issue.
In the Middle School the focus is on Action. Students participate in numerous activities. They might raise awareness of topical social issues or engage in fundraising through Houses as initiated by staff and students. All students also participate in a Service Learning unit of work. It is here that service learning is used as a pedagogy to create an authentic learning experience and this may also occur in the normal curriculum. Middle School students also have the opportunity to attend leadership workshops, participate in the Cocos Tour and volunteer for whole school events such as the World’s Greatest Shave or Relay for Life. The latter two events have been embraced by students in recent years.
We hope that by the time students arrive at Senior School, they are able to involve themselves in Advocacy – to be a voice for people who are marginalised. While many of the opportunities available to Middle School students flow through to Senior School students, there is also much scope for student initiated and managed projects. The theme of social justice and the concept of personal development are also woven into the Social & Emotional Learning curriculum and curriculum based service learning is encouraged. In a normal week, you will find at least 25 Wesley students and staff regularly committing their time to working a range of community groups – Smith Family, South Perth Senior Citizens, Red Cross Soup Patrol, and the Indonesia Service Immersion. In 2016 students in Years 9 – 12 volunteered 7,148 hours (outside of school time) to an enormous range of community groups.
As the great philosopher Dr Suess once wrote, ’unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.’