Editor's Note: Christine McCartney traveled to Finland as part of the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching program, and when she returned, she was inspired to start a service learning program called Global to Local with fellow teacher Jacqueline Hesse. Both teach at Newburgh Free Academy P-TECH in Newburgh, New York, and this program gives their students the opportunity to travel and engage in volunteer work.
By guest bloggers Christine McCartney and Jacqueline Hesse
Volunteerism plays a crucial role in building strong communities and most educators recognize the importance of inviting students to participate in local volunteer opportunities. But one often overlooked aspect of high school community service requirements is an intentional focus on the learning and growth that occurs when students engage in authentic work for social change.
While volunteering, students learn professional skills such as collaboration and leadership, the importance of community engagement, and how to identify and address problems at the local level. As educators who run a global service learning program for our school in New York, we have thought a great deal about how to create meaningful opportunities that capitalize on this learning. We believe that when students are able to learn from someone who is working toward positive social change, whether in our own community or in a community in another country, it helps them to not only understand the need for others to step into that role, but also to be better able to envision themselves doing so.
Our service learning program, Global to Local, allows students to travel to another country at no cost each summer for twelve to fourteen days with the goal of volunteering their time and talents to support local organizations. We have traveled to Ecuador and Cambodia and will travel to Uganda next. Aside from volunteering in these locations, we also spend time with grassroots change-makers who have identified a need in their own communities and have worked toward solutions to address it. Over the years, the way we select these role-models for our students has evolved. We have identified four key characteristics we not only look for in our partners, but consciously cultivate in our students. Below we have attempted to illustrate each attribute and provide an example of someone with whom our students have collaborated, both locally and internationally.
1. We value selfless individuals who are able to articulate and model a clear set of community minded values.
While in Ecuador a few summers ago, our students visited an organization called Casa Victoria, which is an NGO run by Alicia Ballan-Duran and her husband, Dan, in the San Roque section of the country's capital of Quito.
At Casa Victoria, underserved youth from the surrounding area have a safe haven to visit every day after school. The children receive three hours of homework help, hot meals, and daily values lessons. Alicia and Dan intentionally established their organization in a neighborhood that is off the beaten path and rarely visited by tourists, and they immediately recognized the need to create a community-wide sense of ownership and connection with Casa Victoria.
Shortly after purchasing their colonial-era mansion in San Roque, Alicia and Dan hosted a series of dinners for local residents, many of whom were unemployed, struggled with substance abuse, and were in gangs. Once those same residents realized that their children and family members would benefit directly from the resources the organization offered, they became advocates for and guardians of Casa Victoria. During the ten days we spent with Alicia (called Mamalicia by the children), our students were constantly moved by hearing her speak so lovingly of the young people under her care—young people who otherwise would have been on the streets during the long hours after school. As one student, Colton Andress, reflected toward the end of the trip, "They gave up everything just to help the community. They bought this house and built it just for the kids, and that really moved me."
2. We seek community organizers who model inclusion and genuine empathy.
Just over a year ago, we met Melanie Collins, a local Newburgh resident who recently opened a coffee shop in an underutilized and often overlooked section of our city. Her abundant energy is focused on bringing people together, whether over a cup of locally roasted coffee or for a community project. Everything about the coffee shop creates a sense of intentional inclusiveness, from the art on the walls featuring famous hip-hop artists and musicians, to the very name of the establishment: Blacc Vanilla.
It didn't take long for Melanie to begin inviting our students to sit at planning tables of various projects, most recently a student-led initiative to design and paint crosswalk murals with messages of inclusion and encouragement on our city streets. Through her nonprofit, The Blacc Vanilla Community Foundation, she and her husband have been instrumental in securing bikes for city children, backpacks for students, and community spaces for addressing both food waste and food shortages.
It is inspiring to meet a business owner who is more concerned about supporting the people in her community than she is about profits. During a recent crosswalk project, Melanie invited local activists and artists to join our students at the table, keeping the students as key stakeholders in every decision that was made. Our students felt valued and learned a great deal as they worked alongside community activists in our city. They thought deeply about how the crosswalk designs could be painted in a way that honored what the community valued and included as many young people from the city as possible.
3. We look for those who are willing to share challenges and discuss how they overcame obstacles.
While in Cambodia this past summer, our students volunteered at Little Angels Orphanage, an NGO started by Srey Rattana, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide who shared with our students how his past experiences led him to create a safe place in which children have the space and support necessary to learn and grow.
After overcoming incredible obstacles and hardships, including witnessing the murder of his mother and grandmother, Rattana was able to find work for himself by learning the leather carving trade under a mentor who took him in. He immediately recognized the value of having that specific skill set and now teaches it to young children who are either orphaned or who do not have the means to attain basic living necessities. Those children work for one hour each day creating handmade items that support the running of the orphanage. In exchange, the students receive hot meals, homework help, and a place to live.
Once the young Cambodians are ready to move on to university or into the working world, they have not only their education to lean on, but they are also skilled tradesmen. One of our students had been in the New York state foster care system for several years when we traveled. After meeting the children at the orphanage and seeing how Rattana turned the trauma he experienced in his life into inspiration to help others, she immediately began making connections and envisioning the work she could do in our own community to support young men and women with unstable living situations.
4. We look for role models who live their values.
Overall, we hope our students will see the importance of living their own values, and all of our partners do the same. When we met Juan-Carlos Piñeiro at the recommendation of another local activist who identified him as a resource, we immediately saw the connection between his work and what we try to convey to our students. Juan-Carlos has studied and speaks often about the importance of creating space for young people to find a sense of purpose, and he offered to mentor students in our class as they planned the Newburgh Youth Leadership Summit and Enlightenment Expo, a student-led celebration of local arts and history.
As he visited our class each Tuesday morning, he created an incredible environment of trust and honesty, and our students engaged alongside him in guided meditation, mindfulness exercises, and memorization techniques to help them prepare for performance roles at the event. He assisted them in articulating their purpose for wanting to host the event and helped them ensure that each action they took in preparation served their vision. One of our students, Azariah McLymore, who worked with him wrote that, "he has shown me that just by sharing my talents with the community, I am helping eliminate the loneliness many people feel and possibly inspiring others to make change in their everyday lives. By passing down his confidence and strength, I am now a better leader who knows she can take action in her community."
This work has also shifted the way we look at new relationships with community activists, and we intentionally cultivate collaboration with those who believe in the power of young people to work for change. We look for individuals whose organizations are fully dedicated to the population they serve; sometimes this means passing on organizations that might be easy partnerships, but that don't have clear, altruistics missions. Through extensive conversations that take place both in person and virtually, we spend time with each of our partners before introducing them to our students, in the hopes that we can help our students thoughtfully prepare for whatever comes next.
In the same way that it is not enough to have students complete community service hours without providing an opportunity for reflection and growth, it would also be a misstep to put powerful role-models in front of our students and not create the time and space for them to think about how those individuals have taken careful steps to enter into the work they are doing. When our students meet these community-minded role models, they are intentionally invited to reflect on the values these individuals embody, as well as to name the hopes they have for themselves as future change-makers. We hope these experiences help them see the importance of making change in their local communities. Our hope is that all educators will think about how they can provide similar opportunities for youth in their own communities and out in the world.
Image One, Casa Victoria pic courtesy of Erica Virvo
Caption: Students from Global to Local on the steps of Casa Victoria with Alicia (in blue)
Image Two, Crosswalk pic courtesy of Cassie Sklarz
Caption: Melanie, in the back row wearing a hat, with our students outside Blacc Vanilla on the day of the crosswalk painting
Image Three, Cambodia pic courtesy of Jackie Hesse
Caption: Tamara learns leather work from one of the young people at Little Angels
Image Four, Juan Carlos pic courtesy of Juan Carlos Piñeiro
Caption: Juan Carlos taking a selfie with Jason, Alejandro, Elise, and Naisha