“I’M STARTING WITH THE MAN IN THE MIRROR!” sang a chorus of high-schoolers, crescendoing into the refrain of one of Michael Jackson’s most beloved singles. An hour ago, the United Way of Greater St. Louis had been filled with the silence of a typical Saturday, but now, the singing, laughter, and playful banter that tend to accompany teenage service projects brought the building to life.
This group of 30 freshmen and sophomores are part of the Leadership & Resiliency Program (LRP) that is run by St. Louis County Youth Programs. These Hazelwood East and Maplewood students participate in LRP for all four years of high school, learning skills and acquiring experience that mold them into leaders in their communities. Due to the program’s emphasis on service learning, LRP partnered with ServiceWorks to manage the planning and execution of a student-driven service project for Global Youth Service Day.
Global Youth Service Day, which was April 22, is a day dedicated to empowering youth to give back to their communities. Although the students’ project only lasted this one Saturday afternoon, the success of this day of service was the culmination of weeks of planning.
The process began over the students’ spring break, when they came to the United Way of Greater St. Louis for a workshop led by the ServiceWorks’ program VISTAs on passion, community and project conceptualization. Through a combination of video, discussion and project pitches, it became apparent the students were deeply passionate about caring for men, women and children experiencing homelessness. Out of this session came the inspiration for LRP’s Global Youth Service Day project: a five-course meal they would prepare and serve to Gateway 180, a local family shelter.
In the weeks leading up to Global Youth Service Day, LRP and ServiceWorks partnered in facilitating planning sessions for the students. Small groups came up with comprehensive proposals for dishes they wanted to make, including ingredients, supply lists, directions and budgets. Each group pitched their dish idea to the rest of the students in their section, and students voted on their favorites. Through this process, students not only developed an impactful service project, but also practiced their collaboration, communication, project management and public speaking skills, thus fulfilling many of ServiceWorks’ core learning objectives.
The students eventually settled on making barbecued meatballs, “old-fashioned” mac and cheese, fruit kabobs, salad and cupcakes. When they arrived at the United Way on April 22, they divided into stations according to dish and proceeded to complete all the chopping, boiling, mixing and skewering needed to execute their vision. Along the way these teenagers joked, sang and shared stories – building a stronger LRP community through the shared experience of service.
After three hours of food prep and dozens of thoroughly scrubbed dishes, the students brought 20 pans of delicious-smelling food to Gateway 180. Some served the residents dinner, while others joined families at their tables. The children, in particular, got a kick out of meeting the students, showing off their favorite magic tricks to their new teenage friends. The LRP students also walked away changed by the experience. One student said she felt a “real sense of community” and “bond with others,” while another remarked on how incredible it felt to make a difference.
Though only one day, Global Youth Service Day sets up young people for lifelong community engagement. Society often creates a false dichotomy between individual and community success. As youth consider their career options, they are often told they have to choose between climbing a corporate ladder and helping others. While there may be select circumstances in which young people have to make such a drastic choice, LRP’s Global Youth Service Day project shows that individual and community flourishing go hand-in-hand. As students conceptualized, planned and executed their project, they developed important soft skills crucial to professional success in any field. Collaborating, budgeting, time management and attention to detail are critical to both individual careers and community service. Refining these skills in both realms at once can help young people be more effective and fulfilled, all while building healthier communities. Now, if only there was a catchy Michael Jackson tune for that mantra…
Lisa Cohn is an AmeriCorps VISTA with ServiceWorks STL, based out of United Way of Greater St. Louis. She is a recent graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where she majored in English Literature and Psychology. She is passionate about criminal justice reform and plans to dedicate her life to empowering those who have been affected by mass incarceration.