Everyday, northeast Ohio students can be found lending a hand in their communities, tutoring a young child in reading, serving a homeless individual a hot meal and a smile, or campaigning for a worthwhile cause. Young people are becoming empowered through volunteerism.
“It’s critical for us students to realize our ability and potential to affect people in positive ways,” says Alefiyah Lokhandwala, a senior at Laurel School in Shaker Heights who volunteers as a tutor for underprivileged children. “I’ve seen an 8-year-old girl’s progression from being able to read only picture books to learning to read detailed story books in just one school year.”
Marti Hardy, Laurel upper school Spanish teacher, golf coach and director of community service, says, “While the need is definitely out there right now for requests to raise money, we really try to get our girls physically involved in community service.” Upper school students volunteer at the local food bank, walk in the Race for the Cure and clean the banks of the Cuyahoga River for the Ohio Canal Corridor RiverSweep.
Last year, Laurel also launched North Star Collaborative, a partnership with Cleveland Warner Girls Leadership Academy. Laurel students volunteer their time to provide academic support through tutoring, shared experiences and summer outdoor programs, with an ultimate goal of seeing these young girls through high school and college graduation. “We hope all of our kids learn from these experiences,” says Hardy.
“During my years of service, I’ve learned that the person doing the volunteering gains just as much, if not more, than the person being helped,” says Laurel senior Ellen Napoli. “Both sides benefit, which is what is so incredibly unique about service.”
Hardy mentions that Laurel seniors are required to give a speech as part of their graduation requirement, and many times the speeches reflect the students’ realization of their potential to change the life of someone else. She says, “We follow the motto: You might just be one person, but to one person you might be the world.”
Based on a July 2009 report, Volunteering in America Research Highlights, published by the Corporation for National and Community Service, young adults are getting this message. More than 441,000 more young people volunteered in 2008 than 2007, representing an increase from about 7.8 million to more than 8.2 million.
Volunteers are vital to the health of our local communities, especially in a tougher economic climate when nonprofit organizations are working with smaller budgets. St. Ignatius High School students aid many local social service agencies, such as food pantries and drop-in centers to serve meals and sort clothing, says St. Ignatius soccer coach Mike McLaughlin, who oversees the school’s sophomore service program. “We also work hands-on with organizations that aid children with severe disabilities, as well as tutoring Cleveland public school students and visiting patients at hospitals,” he adds.
McLaughlin points out that service opportunities change the way kids view the world. “For most kids, the world revolves around them,” he says. “These opportunities help them realize they are who they are because of what others did for them, and they can now turn the table, and other people will become who they are because of them.”
Laura McGowan, director of the St. Ignatius Arrupe Neighborhood Partnership, says participating in service helps kids learn about themselves and situations different from their own. Ignatius students discover this when they seek out homeless men and women in Cleveland (with adult chaperones) to offer them a simple meal; when they take meals each month to adults with disabilities and provide friendship; or when they step in as a pallbearer for families who do not have anyone to provide that service for them.
Approximately 100 students also work with children and families through the St. Ignatius Arrupe Neighborhood Partnership. “We provide 10 different after-school service programs to about 150 children in grades three through eight,” says McGowan. This program, and all of the volunteer opportunities, strengthens the relationship between student and community.
Sara Mierke, directory of community partnership and service learning at Hawken School in greater Cleveland, says: “Students who volunteer gain a better understanding of the issues underpinning the needs a community faces. It fosters an individuals’ growth, and they will then become young adults who support organizations as adults.”
Hawken senior Chelsea Mihelich says she definitely plans on staying involved when she goes to college. “It’s important for students to give something back to the community that they are taking so much from.”
Hawken is in the midst of designing a new service program into the upper school’s curriculum, explains Mierke, with each student assigned to one of four themed houses, similar to Harry Potter. Each house has names and mascots, and three functions: spirit (generating enthusiasm about school), campus stewardship (participating in the care of the school) and service (offering a collective commitment to their community). Students may be spotted helping out at a hunger center, supporting kids in an after-school program, assisting City Fresh deliver produce to underserved communities in Cleveland, or working with Habitat for Humanity.
“It may sound cliché,” says Mierke, “but when students come into my office excited and passionate about something new they’ve done, perhaps spending an afternoon at a food pantry, it’s quite remarkable.
“They see people who are struggling to make ends meet, and the students commitment to try to make a positive change is elevated another notch.” Mierke says Laurel guides students towards developing a sense of purpose bigger than them. “We believe that volunteer work is one of the valuable ways we can do that.”