Finding New Meaning in the Service Industry

Video created by Hallie K. ’13 for the Literature of Service Class

“What we didn’t have before,” Mike Simpson explained, “was a comprehensive way to find, to measure, to assess the kind of service students were doing.

“We do now, and in the one year that we have, we’ve been incredibly successful. Incredibly.” The Upper School English teacher and head of service learning himself entered an 18-year service arrangement with his wife and their newborn twins just last week, but before he did, Simpson took some time to extol the selfless performance of not just the upperclassmen, but the freshmen and sophomores as well.

“I asked all the class presidents for a pledge of 200 service hours per grade,” Simpson said. “And they all delivered.” From helping children at Schreiber Pediatric Center to lending a hand to our neighbors at Reynolds Middle School, the students heeded Simpson’s call for broader, deeper and sustained action.

One measure provides a striking example of how much service learning has flourished in the 2012-13 school year. Students who give more than 50 hours of service per year receive the Outstanding Service Designation. Last year, Simpson gave the award to four students; this year, that figure climbed to 35.

But Simpson stressed that, while all of these accomplishments deserve recognition and commendation, they’re parts of a much larger whole. “The important thing is that this becomes part of the Country Day culture. Service isn’t just something we do because I’m asking them to do it; it’s just what we do. It’s who we are.”

One group that committed to raising the service bar before Simpson had even set one for their peers is the juniors and seniors in his Literature of Service elective. All of them spent at least 40 hours this year on their own service project, and half spent more than 50. The class emphasized the importance of continual commitment, as opposed to well-intentioned spurts of philanthropy. For this to happen, students (or anyone, for that matter) had to choose an organization or cause that truly mattered to them.

“They have to care about it, and they have to care about it whether they’re getting credit for it or not. That’s the only way it can work,” Simpson said bluntly. For their final project, Simpson asked his LoS students to reflect on the work they’d done in the recent past. They could express these feelings in video form, as above and here, or in informal essays.

The work sometimes reveals sober realizations that diverge from the rose-tinted ideas students had about how the nuts and bolts of service would work. But the work also reveals that, for Simpson’s students, their experiences might not have matched their expectations, but their dedication remains unwavering.

Maddy P. volunteered at Planned Parenthood’s Lancaster Medical Center and noticed a stark divide between the abstract idealism of the exclusively white administration and the pragmatic, almost detached manner of the exclusively black nurses at work making the abstract concrete.

“I am not really sure that the… Lancaster clinic is doing as much good as I had hoped at the beginning of my service project,” Maddy wrote. “I truly believe the heart of the program is in the right place,” she continued, adding that, “Perhaps, after all the initial kinks are worked out,” the organization will get closer to its goal to “better provide healthcare to all Pennsylvanians.”

Alyx K. spent about an hour a day volunteering with Liz Peters’ first-graders, and a few of Carrie Haggarty’s students as well, mostly helping them through one-on-one reading sessions. Like Maddy, her accomplishments differed from her expectations, but, also like Maddy, this only reaffirmed her commitment.

“My overall goal was to spark excitement from the kids I volunteered with… . But I don’t believe the kind of work I did lent itself to that goal,” Alyx said. She described one vivid instance of persuading a less-than-eager student to finish reading an entire book, and cited such “tiny victories” as clear evidence that her “work did have value to it,” just a different value than she thought it would.