During early winter, our students and staff use our weekly field lesson days to focus on service learning, a key component of the FBRA experience. We partner with local non-profits like Greenworks, Manna Food Bank, and RiverLink to contribute over 2,000 thousand hours per year of important service work in our community. From removal of invasive species to collecting tires from the river banks, the signature bright neon shirts of the Salamanders can be seen working throughout the Western North Carolina Region.
While it creates a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment to, say, prepare meals for the homeless, there is a deeper purpose behind our service learning curriculum that is greater than the act of the actual service project itself. First, however, I would like to share how service learning was woven into my life and eventually became a core piece of the FBRA program.
Throughout my high school years, I participated in several volunteer clubs and service project programs through my church and school. I admit that my initial efforts were partly inspired by college applications and my desire to have a well-rounded resume. Over time though, I came to enjoy service work opportunities as much as I enjoyed whitewater kayaking, playing sports, or any other after-school endeavor.
My passion for service learning continued into my college years at Vanderbilt, where I participated in a program called “Alternative Spring Break (ASB).” ASB is just that, an alternative to the traditional spring break trip to the beach or to the mountains out west for a week of skiing with friends. Participants spend the week completing service projects in different locations across the country. I spent my first year in rural West Virginia addressing rural poverty issues, and my sophomore year we helped build homes with Habitat for Humanity in Beaufort, South Carolina. By my junior year, I co-led a group of Vanderbilt students to inner-city Detroit to work in the failing public school system there. This experience of seeing first-hand some of the inequities in our education system later inspired me to apply for the Teach for America program to directly confront social justice issues.
My experience with ASB allowed me to step out of the Vanderbilt “bubble” and receive a healthy injection of grounding and perspective on a variety of social issues in our country. As Gandhi reminds us, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” ASB provided the capacity for me to “lose myself in the service of others” and provide a new lens on topics and issues of which I was unaware. I discovered more about my passions and what I wanted to pursue in my life through these intense weeks of service than I did in any of my undergraduate course work. It was a transformative experience for me, and I am a strong supporter and advocate for this type of programming for any student at almost any level.
It should come as no surprise that service work has been an integral part of the FBRA experience since our doors opened back in 2009. We work very hard to immerse our students in meaningful service projects so they can begin to “find themselves.” During the critical middle school years when identities and values are forming, our students are exposed to a variety of service projects throughout the year. Our hope and aspiration for our students is that through the work, action, and ultimately the habit of service, they will experience the joy and fulfillment of serving others. And in that moment of reflection and growth, our students may discover a new passion or pursuit that they would otherwise not experience.
Service learning, like all of our programming, is designed to accomplish our mission of building character and integrity in young people. While consistently providing thousands of hours of service work per year in our community has a significant impact, the most important outcome is a generation of graduates inspired to contribute to the betterment of society grounded in an ethos of service unto others.
Happy Holidays to all, and I look forward to an incredible year in 2019!