Community service is an important way for students to gain empathy, understanding and commitment. Some schools make service a requirement for graduation while others may view it as something to do only on special occasions.
At Sacred Heart Schools Chicago, an independent Catholic school for children of all faiths, community service is an integral part of the school’s culture, according to Maria-Paz Salas, Sacred Heart’s longtime Coordinator of Service Learning and Community Partnerships.
“Community service is part of our students’ lives and Sacred Heart’s five goals of faith, intellect, social action, community and growth,” says Salas.
Engaging students in community service
Service learning at Sacred Heart varies depending on age group and gradually increases in scope.
The younger kids will tackle very simple projects. “We have our PreK and SK students getting started in community service by helping to advertise our food drives,” says Salas.
In the primary grades, kids may gather food or clothing for drives, make personal care kits, participate in SHS Family Service Day, help with beach clean-ups and other simple projects.
By middle school, students work with specific community partners for the year. Partnerships include The Howard Area Family Center’s Preschool and Head Start Programs, area food pantries, a family shelter, Cradles to Crayons and Care for Real.
“Students work with organizations right here in Edgewater and nearby neighborhoods. It’s important for them to understand and help the communities they are part of,” says Salas.
Another crucial component of service learning at Sacred Heart Schools Chicago is parents, aka “The Justice Team.”
“Parent partners are a huge part of our community service,” says Salas. “They transport the kids and even help engage them in reflection after a service project. Our families also help out on school-wide community service projects. We count on parents, who are invited to partner with faculty and staff, to help us provide service opportunities to our students.”
Cultivating compassion at Sacred Heart Schools Chicago
Having students of all ages get involved in community service is more than just giving back. It’s also a way to help teach children that they have a responsibility to others. Plus, they learn that their efforts can have an impact.
“When our students visit one of our community partners, they get the whole picture of what it means to serve your community. They see the people that need the services and learn how to help them. They see our community partners may be struggling with time, resources or both,” says Salas.
Personal connections build understanding and empathy
Salas says that a hallmark of Sacred Heart’s community service program is the emphasis on personal connections.
“Whether it’s immigration, homelessness, hunger or developmental challenges, our students learn a lot about challenges facing their community. They get to know the people not only receiving the services, but also the people who provide the services.”
In this way, students of all ages gain perspective and empathy for others, Salas says.
“Our kids may be cleaning out fridges at a shelter or working alongside a resident at Misericordia, an organization that serves people with developmental disabilities. They may sort through food or clothing or create a ‘winter joy’ basket of useful items and make blankets for a family in need. They learn that everyone has dignity, both people who need help and those who are helping.”
From service to leadership
One result of Sacred Heart’s community service initiative is that students develop an interest in spearheading service efforts. For example, middle schoolers take on leadership roles through the school’s SOAP (Service, Outreach, Advocacy and Partnership) initiative which addresses charitable concerns, social justice issues, equity and conservation efforts.
Past efforts have included work with Misericordia and beach clean-ups with the Alliance for the Great Lakes to promote a better environment. Students also participate in yearly seminars from experts at Loyola University about sustainability and conservation.
The bottom line is that students want to lead service projects, including those that benefit their school.
“Recently, we had students lead a campaign to introduce better recycling and sustainable practices in the cafeteria. Students led the entire effort themselves, including fundraising and applying for a grant. This is exactly what we are teaching them to do: be advocates for real-world solutions,” says Salas.
Community service beyond the school walls
Salas notes that it’s rewarding to see the lasting effect that Sacred Heart’s service learning projects have had not only on present students but graduates as well.
Salas shares a recent example of a Sacred Heart student who was considering attending public high school after eighth grade. His mother was concerned he wouldn’t be able to commit to the same types of service learning.
“I’ll never forget the student’s response. He said ‘Don’t worry, mom. I went to Sacred Heart. Service is a part of who I am.’”
Many alumni are committed for life to creating equitable communities, forming service groups and writing books such as Do Good Well by Jennifer Przybylo, an SHS alumna.
“It comes down to being a good neighbor,” Salas says. “Our students leave us with a feeling of civic duty and a desire to help those around them, not because they have to, but because they want to.”
To learn more about Sacred Heart Schools Chicago, including the service learning programs, visit shschicago.org.