Community Service in Schools: From Feeling Good to Feeling Empowered

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A couple of years ago, I used to ponder a question. As an educator, how could I emphasize and model empathy, compassion, and service in such a self-centered, social-media influenced society? Reading about the problems of the world and soothing our consciences through poster boards and PowerPoint presentations to bring awareness was not enough. More specifically, how could I use my role as a school librarian to teach our students those values, and then help awaken them to current, challenging issues by collaborating with other local and global communities? Without even realizing it, the answer was right in front of me.

At that time, I was an adviser of the Principal’s Ladies Club, an organization of young women at our school. We focused on etiquette, leadership, and community service. Our projects made us feel good about lending a helping hand to the community and earned accolades for our students. However, these achievements never fully represented the mission or possibilities of the organization.

What could I do to help? Somehow, I had overlooked the connection between my role as a librarian and an empowered learner and the collaboration opportunities between the school and our larger communities. The school curriculum was a set of tools to teach students and meet their academic needs; however, there were other potential opportunities to influence students, both personally and socially. Of course, they needed concrete ways to demonstrate growth, hard work, and discipline, but I wanted to help them increase their understanding of the world around them. Students needed to experience more than simply “feel-good moments”—I felt that was part of my role as an educator.

So last year, our young women’s organization set out to become empowered. Our students wanted to affect change in local and global communities. We sponsored several activities, including a visit to the Ronald McDonald House, numerous bake sales, a mentor day at a middle school, a movie night, and several career café days. But, there were two events that proved to be the most impactful because we strengthened our efforts through collaboration with other organizations, and we developed compassion for marginalized populations.

Knowledge and Action

Our first project involved a collaboration with The Twin Rivers, Ohio, chapter of the Links Incorporated, a national service learning organization dedicated to women's empowerment. Since our geographic location was listed among the top 10 locations for human trafficking, we knew this was an important, timely topic. We held a conference at our school for all young women in grades 9-12. Preparation for the conference included conducting surveys, researching information, organizing the program, and contacting guest speakers who were experts in the fields of law enforcement, social work, and self defense. Afterwards there were small-group discussions led by student leaders and adult volunteers.

Before the conference, we distributed a survey to find out what students already knew about the topic, and if increased learning would motivate them to action. While our student leaders were somewhat informed about this topic, they definitely expanded their knowledge during the various presentations. The attendees learned how human trafficking has been redefined to include not only vulnerable women from afar or those who play fictional roles in movies, but also those who live within our own communities. Presenters shared ways to identify red flags and unhealthy relationships that can serve as catalysts for human trafficking. Perhaps the most powerful part of the conference was the final presentation by a survivor. In follow-up evaluations, our student leaders acknowledged that their classmates learned a lot, and they requested future empowerment sessions.

Our second project was a global effort that included collaboration with C.G. Women’s Empowerment, a locally based, global organization led by Dureti (Mimi) Tadesse, a native of Ethiopia who now lives in the Columbus, Ohio, area. Through this organization, Mimi offers resources and services to neglected women and children in rural Oromia, Ethiopia. Our introduction to the organization included meeting the director who shared her passion for generating revenue for women living in poverty. The funds are used to promote entrepreneurship by helping women develop small businesses to take care of their families.

Beyond School Walls

One student from our young women’s organization was so moved by the presentation that she interned in the field and developed a series of marketing materials and literature to educate others about the work that’s necessary to help women earn wages to support their families. She became a global collaborator who understood the power of building communities. As a result of her internship, we raised $1,000 by conducting a coin drive at our school. The funds went towards the purchase of 50 sheep for the small village. The Ethiopian women utilized those sheep to produce milk, cheese, yogurt, and other products that were then sold for profit. The project was ultimately presented at a city service learning fair, and later recognized by the local Rotary Club. Our student leader also received a college scholarship for her exemplary role in the organization.

Our young women's experiences with community service locally and globally were important lessons in how to network and engage in learning environments beyond the four walls of a school building. More importantly, our students gained skills that allowed them to empathize, not just sympathize, with other citizens—and then move to action. In essence, they experienced what it means to be change agents. While the school library has traditionally been a place for fact finding, analysis, and technology presentations, I learned to expand my role as a school librarian. Now, rather than simply teaching academic skills, I know how exciting it is to include teaching those important skills our students need to help engage communities, collaborate with others, and solve problems beyond our school walls.

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