Marilyn PerlynWhen my oldest son, Chad, was fourteen, he started a service learning project and was able to secure free medical and dental care for local children in our community who had no insurance. The lessons that Chad experienced as a teen stuck with him and now, at age 38, as a young pediatric plastic surgeon, those experiences are ingrained in him as he continues along his life journey. He just returned from his sixth trip to Haiti to help children who required surgeries following the devastating earthquake that happened in 2010.

Chad is still identifying community needs, brainstorming to find solutions, learning about the Haitian people and their culture, reflecting on the work he does, and celebrating the outcomes. Recently, Chad received a letter about a teenage girl in Haiti who had a tumor that protruded from the top of her leg to her knee. Jessica had suffered years of teasing and was called the “pig girl” because the skin of this enormous tumor resembled the tough and leathery skin of a pig. She had to climb a very steep hill to get to her home and this caused her much stress and discomfort. Chad knew he could help Jessica and knew that it was now up to him to make it happen. So he put together a team of doctors and nurses who flew from Miami to Haiti to perform the surgery. I got a text from Chad at the end of that day: Jessica doing great, 8 hours of surgery went well, it was a wonderful and rewarding day. When I read Chad’s text I was beyond thrilled to see that a young girl’s life had been changed dramatically but I also carefully read the words…it was a wonderful and rewarding day. The expression of these emotions is a very important and necessary part of reflection and makes the doer want to repeat the experience again. It is through refection that life long givers are created.

I mention this story to share with you the tremendous life-changing impact that service learning has on young people. It is so tremendously satisfying and educational that it becomes a way of both thinking and doing. If you give your students an opportunity to engage in a service learning project, you will see that not only will your students be affected, but so will you. No one has ever helped someone else without helping himself or herself in the process!

My three children all did service learning projects when they were growing up. Twenty-five years ago our family did not call them community service or service learning projects. In our family we called them DTRT- Do The Right Thing. Today, research has well documented the value of service learning projects as a way to engage students in learning while applying their knowledge to real life problems. I encourage you to find a project that your students will enjoy. It will be invaluable to them as one of the greatest learning lessons they have ever had!

Because I feel so strongly about the positive effect that service learning has had on the lives of my own children, I created a service learning project that could be used in elementary and middle schools – The OCHO Project: Read for a Need (Opportunities for Children to Help Others). The three-fold focus is on character education, service learning, and literacy. In this project 18 character traits are experienced with an emphasis on empathy as the cornerstone of character education. Students apply knowledge in real world settings by learning both inside and outside of the classroom. The project culminates with a free book fair where participating Title 1 students choose books of their own to take home. Students “pay it forward” by later sharing a few of their books with students in need in other countries.  Participating schools receive a PowerPoint presentation for students to view so that US students can see the recipient children who received the donated books. I think it is imperative for students to have face-to-face engagement.  I believe that this encourages the development of empathy and provides children with an opportunity to connect with the greater world around them.

Last year one of the schools viewed an OCHO PowerPoint that I had made following a trip to India where books were delivered. In the photo the US students saw children holding the books that they donated to them but they also noticed that the Indian children had no shoes. The kids immediately asked, “ Mrs. Green, Mrs. Green, can we get them shoes next?” I was thrilled because I knew that they got it! This, again, was empathy in action!

Marilyn will be a presenter at CEP’s upcoming Forum.