Service Learning at FBRA: What Are You Doing For Others?

Will Yeiser, Executive Director

Service learning has been woven into the curriculum at the French Broad River Academy since day one. We intentionally build opportunities into our weekly field lessons to fulfill our mission of building character and integrity for a lifetime of learning, service, and leadership, especially during the holiday season. Service has and will continue to be a core component of the FBRA experience, and its roots go back far beyond the start of the school in 2009.

My service learning career can be traced back to high school. I began working with my high school volunteer club where I would help with some basic volunteer jobs like packaging food for local food pantries. I enjoyed the work as well as the opportunity to connect with new people. The projects often produced unique shared experiences that later formed the basis of new friendships through my high school years.

During my undergraduate years at Vanderbilt University, I participated in a program called “Alternative Spring Break (ASB).” ASB recruited and placed students in sites all across the country to conduct a week of service work. The weeks were filled with work, reflection, learning, and, once again, building relationships through unforgettable shared experiences with students who would likely not cross paths during their college years.  

I spent my freshmen year break in Union, West Virginia addressing rural poverty, and then went to Daufuskie Island located just south of Hilton Head Island my sophomore year.  I enjoyed my experiences so much that I applied for and was accepted as a trip leader my junior year.  I co-led a diverse group of undergraduate students to inner-city Detroit where we worked with the public school system to address educational inequity.  This was my first exposure to some of the shortcomings of our public school system, and it later inspired me to apply for and participate in the Teach for America program in rural Eastern North Carolina.

While teaching Spanish at Asheville Middle School, I partnered with French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson to start a river-based program designed to get students on the water and invested in service learning in an effort to clean up and restore the French Broad River.  We learned about and then built rain gardens in the community, we sampled water quality and analyzed the results, and we conducted river clean-ups and countless other projects designed to engage students in learning about the river while also getting them outside of their classroom and comfort zone…sound familiar?

The rest, as they say, is history now.  When we opened our doors in 2009 along the banks of the French Broad River in the River Arts District, cofounder and Biology teacher David Byers and I designed and planned the first series of service learning projects that year, and the role of service learning has been ingrained FBRA’s program and culture ever since.  Even while down in Costa Rica, FBRA students participate in service learning projects with our local partners to further reinforce our mission of creating a lifetime of service work for our graduates.

When asked by students or families why we prioritize service learning and contribute thousands of service hours each year to our surrounding communities, I explain that it is really not for Manna food bank or the group we are working with.  Rather, it is for the individual student and the fulfillment of purpose it creates as we strive to inspire our students to contribute to the betterment of society whether it is river-related or not. As we near the upcoming Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, it is fitting to reflect on his quote below:

Happy holidays, and we hope to see you in the new year!