Familiar themes of homelessness, hunger and poverty remain the main topics of discussion this school year, and Service Learning Coordinator Kate Howell and supporting faculty members have planned ways to tackle these issues in age-appropriate ways more often so that discussions during the school year become more integrated into the culture of RA. “This way,’ says Howell, “during Service Learning Day in April, we can all look back and tie in what we’ve done throughout the year. When we incorporate service learning into our classroom discussions, it becomes a lot more meaningful to students; it’s so much more than a note that goes home asking for families to bring in cans of food. Students are given the opportunity to reflect and offer their own thoughts and ideas.”
This year, Middle and Upper School students partake in activities and discussions every 4-6 weeks in the small advisory groups facilitated by their teacher or advisor. Leading up to the Food Drive this month, students have been addressing hunger. For example, students in Grade 7 read an article by Anna Quindlan on hunger and wrote then shared their reflections. Says one student, “We were given facts about hunger in our nation and around the world, then we talked about that food insecurity is when a person or family doesn’t know where or when their next meal will come from. We also talked about abundance, and what philanthropy is. I think kids want to talk about important stuff like this.”
Students in grades 6 - 8 just returned from the fall Heifer Trip, an optional program that is also offered in the spring. Students spend the weekend learning about Heifer's mission to help to end world hunger and poverty and to care for the earth. Says one participant, “We help with farm chores like putting sheep and goats out to pasture and feeding and milking animals. We tour the Global Village, learning where Heifer works and the issues facing the residents there, and we prepare lunch as a group in one country (this year it was Kenya), and then are placed into “families” to spend the afternoon and night in one country.” Each student is assigned a particular role in their family (head of household, wise elder, pregnant mother, toddler, etc.) and both students and teachers find this program an amazing immersion into a culture very different from our own.
This December, service learning activities will focus on the uplifting topic of generosity. US students look forward to running the annual holiday party at the Norwalk Emergency Center for the families (including children) who are staying there. “Everyone is so happy on that day, it’s nice to be able to bring smiles to people who need it the most,” said one eighth grader.
On November 23, families once again came together and stocked the shelves at the Stamford Food Bank. On December 8th and 14, families have another opportunity to get involved with service learning at RA (alongside faculty and staff and in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity) by wrapping gifts for shoppers at the Danbury mall who may then make a donation to a charity of choice.
Also during the holiday season, students in grades 4-8 will take part in a coat/mitten drive and Landmark Preschool and Lower School children will join forces with Toys for Tot for a 3-campus toy drive coordinated by Jessica Brooks. Students in Grade 4 will help deliver food for Meals on Wheels next month as well.
Students in Grade 5 are excited to participate in a Hunger 101 program this year, an in-house event sponsored through the Connecticut Food Bank which involves an age-appropriate simulation activity where students try to figure out ways to “support a family” with a given income. Peer Leaders in Grade 8 will facilitate talks with 4th graders throughout the year. YSOP, Youth Service Opportunities Project, is an overnight experience in the spring for 7th and 8th graders to learn about homelessness in United States. Students prepare a meal for and interact with homeless guests, listen to speakers and go to work-sites where they participate hands-on with organizations working to feed and help the homeless.
Says Mrs. Howell, “YSOP is an awesome and eye-opening experience for everyone. By offering a variety of activities on a variety of topics throughout the year, our students often find a fondness for a certain issue; they take ownership of the cause they become involved in because it begins to have personal meaning to them.”On April 22, RA will host a schoolwide Service Learning Day; some grades will go off-campus to work with organizations RA has forged relationships with and some grades will host special speakers. “On this day, we will tie in the ideas we have discussed throughout the year; this way, students are not faced with information overload, and service learning take on a greater meaning than just a one-day event.”