Talking Community Service with Middle School Students
A few weeks ago Ross and I gave a presentation to about 170 middle school students at the Germantown Friends School before they embarked on their Middle School Day of Service, for which they worked at various places, from community gardens to food pantries. To energize them in this mission, Ross and I attempted to infuse them with commitment to community and appreciation for the uniqueness their community members. I tried to convey the importance of these ideas by telling the middle school students a few stories about some experiences I have had and what I’ve learned from them.
The first story I told was about an experience I had volunteering to help people move into a transitional housing facility when I was in middle school. During this I met a girl who was moving into the housing with her mother, who had recently gotten a job and was transitioning out of homelessness. Talking to this girl was really the first time I felt able to put a face to experiences of homelessness and poverty and began to see them as a part of the world I lived in, as opposed to some dark and mysterious separate reality. It made me realize how different one person’s life could be from my own, despite all our human commonalities, and how important it was to me to work together with people who were experiencing such challenges. That was my first story.
The next idea that I wanted to convey to the students was that people can see the same thing in totally different ways. I explained how this realization hit me when I was in high school and I got into an email conversation over email with a Chinese student about Tibet. At the time, I had only heard a little bit about protesting that had been happening in Tibet. The people who I had heard talking about it were saying that the people who were protesting were in the right, but what Alice argued passionately in her email was that the protesters were trying to tear China apart. This encounter made me realize that people can see things in a way totally different from the dominant perspective of which I am aware. Through this I learned that I have to keep digging and asking questions in order to understand various perceptions of a situation.
I also told the middle school students about two experiences I had volunteering at an organization called High Rocks, which provides educational enrichment programs for girls in a rural area of West Virginia. First I learned how much I could learn from people whom I thought I would be teaching. I realized this when we held a workshop to talk about how to improve schools and I realized that the middle school girls we were talking to had a lot of great ideas I wouldn’t ever have thought of for what kinds of help they wanted in their schools. This made me realize how important it is to be open to being taught by whomever I encounter.
I also I told a story about pouring concrete into holes to support the support beams of a building at High Rocks. I explained that while we were doing this I felt frustrated because it seemed like it had nothing to do with supporting the educational aspirations of girls. However when we all had dinner together, I realized that the beams made it possible for the kitchen to have a floor, which made it possible for us to have a kitchen to have dinner in, which was so important because it gave us all a space to be and talk and really get to know each other and learn from each other. So even things that seem a little irrelevant can really connect to a bigger picture.
Ross then talked about the importance of building communities based on love and commonalities, and then we sent the kids off for their day of service!