Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Service Learning: Building Authentic Community Connections

II. How To Help

With a list of ideas in hand, the next logical step is to figure out not what we want to do but what would add the most value to the community we are trying to help.

Some years ago, I worked in a community organization that served homeless children. We would regularly receive phone calls from school groups that would call to say something like, "Our Community Service Club is looking to do a 'Day of Service,' and we'd like to come in and help the children." These invitations were often complemented by a suggestion of how they could help, given the restrictions on their time and what they hoped to get out of it. Maybe they could come in and play with the children or do arts and crafts, they suggested, so that they could see the impact of their work.

I understood the impulse. I truly did. Making a personal connection is always going to be more meaningful than collecting bags of donated toys or organizing a bake sale. But their view of how to help us was vastly different from our view of how they could help us.

One-day service trips, especially to spend time with the children I worked with, wound up doing more harm than good. They cheated the children in our program out of their very real need to form lasting and supportive relationships, in a climate in which so much remained unstable. What would add more value (and do far less harm), as cliched as it seemed, was in fact a donation of toys or money - or better yet, a six-month long commitment to volunteer every week and form those relationships. And when we explained this to the would-be do-gooders, we generally were met with understanding and agreement, if a bit of a let-down. Sometimes, we got the donation. Sometimes, they went in search of another, more authentic experience. So it goes.

* * *

And so, in my work with these second graders, the challenge was to take their impulse and to find ways that they could help, in a way that they had chosen and in a way that would not run counter to the stated needs of those we wanted to serve.

With this goal in mind and buoyed by a clear direction and a long list of possibilities, we mention what we've done so far to the Peace Games Coordinator at the school, who tells us that by a seemingly providential coincidence her partner is a researcher at Children's Hospital. After talking about it for a little while, it seems likely that we could get her partner and the pediatrician at the hospital to come and speak to the class. The goal of the visit, we agree, would be to help us narrow our options by giving us a better picture of what it's like to be a child in the hospital and how we, as a class of second graders, could make the most positive contribution.

The day of the visit arrives, and the children are excited. Dr. Euler is wearing his white doctor's coat and has brought some toy doctor's tools, such as a stethaschope and blood pressure pump, and he tells us what he does and what it's like at the hospital. The children are enthralled - and especially excited by the toys.

We share the list we've created with him, and he looks it over. He agrees that it would be better for the doctors and nurses to give the medicine. And that inviting the patients over to their house is probably not a great idea. To our mild surprise, he also nixes the idea of collecting toys. "This may sound a little weird," he says, "but Children's Hospital is actually a pretty happy place for a hospital. We've got lots of toys." By way of illustrating this, he explains that every room has a Playstation console, which gets a lot of wild-eyed stares of disbelief and some hoots of approval. Clearly, they are not wanting for toys.

He is, however, impressed with the idea of sharing jokes. Like us, he agrees that laughter can make someone feel less sad, but he adds that sometimes laughter can help make someone get better when they are sick. If we collected jokes, he speculates, they could add it to their library cart at the hospital. Having jokes that other children laugh at - or even wrote themselves - would be more meaningful than other books. "It's a thought, anyway," he says.

He leaves the toys with the teacher and thanks the class for their good ideas. The teacher takes pictures. And we end the class, of course, with a game.

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