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Learning outside the classroom

We all know that volunteerism, civic engagement and advocacy are the driving forces for creating change and making a positive impact in your community and society at large. There is no minimum age requirement for someone to be a difference maker, in fact, the voices of young people are often some of the most energetic, inspired and motivated of them all. We can never discount the power that empowered youth can have in a community.

Last week our United Way hosted its annual Student Service Day. More than 150 students from 5 area high schools volunteered to give a day of service in the community. They signed up for the event without knowing any details of the projects before them and without any insight into who would be joining them on their service team. What they knew was that they would wear a LIVE UNITED shirt, that they should dress for the weather and that they would be onsite from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Beyond those basic details, the plan of the day was totally unknown to the students.

The projects were hosted all over the MOV, from South Parkersburg to Belpre to Marietta. Volunteers from the Parkersburg Rotary Club and WVUP assisted with the project sites this year which was a new and ever so helpful component of the day. The tasks were as diverse as assisting with marketing projects, painting, landscaping, assembling garden beds, sorting hundreds of pounds of clothing donations, packing meals and more. The projects were physical and many of them required spending the day in the drizzling rain. There was nothing glamorous about the work that was being done. Yet the responses at the end of the day were overwhelmingly positive. The experiences were both enlightening and humbling to the teams that served. While the obvious goal of the day was completing the tasks at hand, the outcome was so much broader that the tangible completion of the projects.

These students stepped out of their comfort zones a bit, into that realm of the unknown, where great learning seems to always occur. Their eyes were opened to segments of our community that were different from their everyday norms. They became aware of needs and critical concerns within our community that they didn’t even know existed. They learned about organizations and volunteers that are addressing critical needs every day … they were shocked to learn that many of these organizations work with minimal resources and stretched budgets to continue to bring the necessary services to our community. The students shared stories and anecdotes at the end of the day that were insightful, empathetic and inspiring. They learned about developing areas and growing businesses and the work that drives that kind of community development. They were asked to share their thoughts about our downtown districts and what future plans might be a catalyst for growth and interest.

At the end of the day, the students shared reflections on the entire experience. The students shared how empowering it felt to be asked these questions and to feel as if their opinions were valued. They shared the feelings of concern and sadness they felt when they had face to face encounters with some of our community members facing real life crisis and hardships. They shared such a myriad of emotions as they reflected on their day and began to process the entire experience.

One of the greatest blessing of youth is the idealistic energy that often accompanies it. As young adults we often feel that we have all inclusive answers and we are completely equipped to change the world. While we never want to strip that energy from our youth, I do believe that it is imperative that we equip them with an array of real-life experiences so that they have a framework within which to place their idealism. The relationship between young people and nonprofits can be the start of a significant change in our community and should be a reciprocal and powerful educational experience. Not only do we need to understand the ‘issue’ or ‘societal problem’ that many people face and are impacted by every day, but we need to meet and work alongside those whose daily realities are shaped by challenges we may never have imagined. Everyday people are affected by the issues that organizations fight for or against, and once we realize how people-centered things like advocacy, outreach and service are, I believe young people will realize their call to action and their potential in their local landscapes to really affect change.

Job shadowing and co-op experiences are important pieces of helping young people engage in communities and help to shape their future plans. We seem to universally recognize the importance of talking with our youth about career planning and building paths for their future in this regard. We cannot miss the opportunity to ensure that we are developing more than just good workers and strong professionals … it is imperative that we develop good citizens. I believe there is an equally important place for service experience. Being given the opportunity to volunteer at the many nonprofit organizations, homeless shelters, advocacy centers, and philanthropic fundraisers that complete a community is both eye opening and life changing. Our hope is always to host a day that offers the opportunity for extended service and long-term engagement that lives on after the busses return to the schools and the students go home. We want to leave the students inspired to do more and confident that their actions and words do make a measurable difference. Our future community depends on it.

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Stacy DeCicco is the executive director of the United Way Alliance of the Mid-Ohio Valley.

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