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Five Steps to Cultivate Service Leaders Through Community Service

Connie Rensink, a global education consultant, co-founded the student service organization, Club We Can, in 2009. Today, she shares strategies for helping students become activists.

by guest blogger Connie Rensink

At the end of the school year, students in the Club We Can afterschool service club were asked what they had learned from their participation. Initial responses included statements like:

  • "Children in South Africa might not have water."
  • "The people at the retirement center are lonely."
  • "Some people don't have enough to eat."
  • "Some kids have lost their parents."
  • "Pets can get sick or die if they eat the wrong things."

These matter-of-fact statements were accompanied by an empathetic furrow of the brow, yet there didn't seem to be a lot of distress. When asked why they weren't more upset about these problems, their answer was: "I know I can make a difference and help."

Club We Can is an afterschool club for third through sixth graders offering students a chance to learn about local, national, and global issues and to be a part of related community service projects. More importantly, these young advocates learn how to plan and act to address the issues they personally care about and celebrate diversity. This doesn't happen by accident. Coordinators designed intentional steps to scaffold students from volunteers to compassionate activists. 

Human Rights Orientation
Each new member attends a half-day orientation to examine the purpose of service work. Parents are invited to take part to prepare the family for sensitive conversations as students study difficult social crises like poverty and food scarcity. Together they complete activities examining what it means to be human and what rights are. They watch videos like If the World Were a Village, which explores different global experiences, and What are Human Rights, which teaches the definition of human rights.

The outcome of this orientation is an understanding that each of us is responsible for ensuring that everyone enjoys their rights as humans, a common vocabulary built around dignity and respect, and an overview of some of the topics that will be covered that year.  

A Strong Kickoff Project
Each fall, we begin with Trick or Treat for UNICEF. Kids are immediately engaged in this project, and it serves as a great model for future work. UNICEF provides lesson plans, marketing materials, and an easy way to turn in contributions. Students are exposed to research about vaccines, clean water, nutrition, and medicine while learning about the related costs and financial accountability. They have an immediate sense of accomplishment and list this as one of their favorite projects.

Social Issue Research
After students have completed two or three project cycles, they are asked to write down one or two problems in the world they care deeply about. Next, they are grouped with students with similar concerns such as environment, health, animals, and so on. A project-planning outline helps guide them through research and discussion about their issue and possible solutions. Elementary students are passionate about their causes and carry a spirit of possibility sometimes lost in adult circles. Coordinators facilitate conversations about partnering with those in need (feasibility studies) to increase the effectiveness and sustainability of project work. Students find out what is already being done to decide if they want to join an existing effort or if they want to initiate their own. They finish this exercise by presenting their findings to the rest of the group, and they are encouraged to complete the project on their own or with their families. Last year, one student and her family volunteered at a local animal shelter. Another group of students decided to participate in a fundraising walk for cancer research.

International Night
Students at North Euless Elementary represent over thirty-one countries. International night invites all students and their families to join in an evening celebrating that diversity. Families with similar heritages collaborate to represent their culture through displays, food, native dress, and performances. Club We Can members take shifts helping with setup, greeting, the drink station, cleanup, and enjoying the festivities. They say this event helps them understand and appreciate their friends' customs, and realize that there are as many similarities as there are differences. 

Student-Driven Projects
servicelearning2.pngAt the end of each year students are surveyed about their favorite projects, what issues they care about most, their confidence in initiating action themselves, and what projects they would like to do the following year. Coordinators use the results to plan the projects for the next year. As students work through their Social Issue Research, coordinators look for projects that would work for the entire group (usually thirty to forty students). When possible, they choose one or two of these projects to finish out the school year. One of the ideas the group has adopted is tending the school's natural outdoor learning area. Students report that including their initiatives makes them feel that their opinions and their work really matter.

Kaylyn Hughes, Club We Can co-founder, says, "Our club has inspired elementary-aged students to have the desire to help others. It has formed positive leaders. It has given the students an awareness of the diversity of people we have in this world or just simply sitting in class right next to them. It has opened their eyes to the needs of others. It has positively changed their perspective of others." Through these steps and ongoing reflective dialogue, Club We Can empowers students to become inclusive service leaders, ready to make a difference in the world.

Connect with Connie and Heather on Twitter. 

*In 2011 Club We Can received a "Best Practices Award" from the Committee on Teaching About the United Nations (CTAUN). The award honored two years of coordinating a student service club that teachers created after attending a 2009 UN conference on protecting human rights.

Photo credit: Duncan1890/iStockPhoto.

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