Thursday, December 20, 2007

Integrating Community Service Learning into Your Life

When students take a Spanish class with us, we tell them what to read, what to talk about, and even tell them when and where to talk (e.g., every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 1pm). But then they graduate, stop taking Spanish classes and discover that they don't read or speak in Spanish at all.

My advice to students has always been: use Spanish for something that you already do. So, if you read about sports every day, read about sports in Spanish. If you rent a video every weekend, watch it in Spanish.

If you try to "add" Spanish into your already busy life, it probably won't happen. But if you integrate it into something you already do, you just might keep up with your Spanish.

The same is true of community service learning. So many of our students sincerely want to continue working with their community partner the following semester. But when it isn't a course requirement, it's hard for them to "add it" to their busy, over-scheduled lives. They may go a couple of times, but then they get busy and drop it.

But if you want community service to be a part of your life, you need to connect it to something you already do. Like getting together with a group of friends on the weekend? Go to the Refugee Center's Saturday morning program together and help refugee and immigrant children learn English. Find yourself browsing in your public library on a regular basis? See if you can help with any Spanish-language programming they have going on. Or start one! Moving to a new town and need to meet people? You could join a gym, or you could join a service organization. And if attending church is for you, attend one that takes community service seriously.

That is the case of Bill and Sadie Bauer, my aunt and uncle who live in Battle Creek, Michigan. Their church has a very active program to sponsor and support Burmese asylees in particular as well as other activities. So when Sadie read my previous post on religious organizations and community-based learning she wrote the following:

"...there are many benefits to those who are helped & the helpers as well. Many people from other countries are very suspicious, if not downright fearful, of getting involved with governmental agencies. Churches may represent a place where they feel safer to ask for help.

"For 25 years, our church had a professional staff of volunteers who operated a free pre-school for 3, 4, & 5 year-old children without any attempt to recruit families to join our church. It was originally conceived as a way to improve the lives of, & chances of success at school later for children in the general neighborhood of the church. As that neighborhood changed (fewer family homes, & etc) it expanded to other areas & we provided some transportation. A big part was parent participation in the classroom & in adult classes to help them understand the needs of children & ways they could reinforce what children were learning. The program was a huge success as feedback came through the schools they later attended. Parents also praised it.

"In recent times, of course, we've worked more with new immigrants (asylees, really) from Burma. It sounds as though your Center for Refugees may be providing what we offer to our people through church. A biggie is helping them get through complex, automated phone systems when they need help. Ironically, the phone company is the worst of those! Immigration, of course, is the other. Bill has helped many people that way when their phone bill is messed up by the phone company, or when they've been billed for things they didn't know were costly, or other problems."

She also wrote about some of the intergenerational aspects that may come with community service and religious organizations:

"A couple of other points about churches is that they frequently have people like us who are retired & willing to use the skills from their work life to help others. The fact that there is a large facility with rooms for meetings is also a plus. We know a retired accountant from another church who regularly helps people set up bank/credit union accounts & tend them. Sometimes he runs interference when things get messed up there, too.

"Bill started 12 years ago, going with a Burmese speaker at first, to enroll new students as they arrived. Since he knew all the ins & outs of forms, free lunches, & all the other inside stuff about schools, it was an invaluable help to the families. [My note: Bill was a school principal for many years.] He still does that, & enrolled 14 new students at various levels this fall. Some of them needed extra shots to be enrolled, so he took them to the Health Department for that, along with a father of 4 who had to sign his name 34 times on all the forms Bill filled out for him! They were all exhausted at the end of that day!"

I'm sure that Bill and Sadie would say that their work with the Burmese community has enriched their own lives and the entire Battle Creek community. That is the "mutually beneficial" dictum of community service learning. And they have connected that community service to something that was already a part of their lives. Which doesn't make it easy, but it does make it possible.

It also shows that community service learning isn't just for K-16 students!


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