Community Service Courses:

About this article

Kevin LaNave describes a course at his school in which students participate in service activities and then reflect on their experiences. The mission is empowerment, and the students are central to the program's success. LaNave writes that the key to student motivation is choosing service work that matters, which typically means that the opportunities are interpersonal, real needs are met, and leadership is expected. The article discusses the role of mentors and how to help students move from guilt to compassion, from tragedy to hope, from charity to justice, from concern to a lifestyle of service, and from trying to be saviors to being companions. The article's conclusion addresses the need for celebration and closure at the end of a service activity.

This past semester, at the end of a year-long service program at a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed youth, two students from my community service course wrote a poem to express the significance of
their experiences. These are the concluding stanzas:

Our meeting changed us, for the better.
They gained our strength, were able to believe more in love.
We saw the value of mercy, the power of love,
The great value of touching a life.

God touched both of us.
We were healing instruments, mending souls.
But when someone is used by God,
His divine power changes the instrument, makes it better.

We are different now.
We see more clearly.
We see the effect of sin and pain.
We realize the power of love.
And we know the hand of God moves all.

(Jackie Popp and Amanda Holly)

In 1986, Cathedral High School, in Saint Cloud, Minnesota, implemented a course through the Religious Studies department entitled "Christian Service." This course requires all eleventh- and twelfth-grade students to perform a minimum of fifty hours of service work within the school, the parish or diocese, or the civic community. It also includes several kinds of reflection activities.

Although it encountered strong resistance when first implemented six years ago, the program has become solidly valued and is now a central feature of the school. Initially, as a member of the Religious Studies department, and now, as program coordinator of the course for the past three years, I have had a unique opportunity to observe its development. I have experienced and been moved by countless examples of its power in the lives of students like Jackie and Amanda. This article attempts to share what have been some key elements of its success.

The Program's Mission: Empowerment

It's just about doing the service work, isn't it?

"Service work" seems like a wonderful idea, capable of building character in students as well as meeting others' needs. But its value and meaning is greatly affected by what the participants bring to it. Uninformed choices, unchallenged misconceptions, and misguided actions can potentially result.

Although doing the actual service work is at the heart of our Christian service program, accomplishing the work itself is not the course's central purpose. Empowering students to grow as people of service from a Christian faith perspective is the program's mission--quite a broader goal than simply having them complete a service project. Such growth includes the following:

  • becoming aware of one's own personal gifts, needs, values, and dreams
  • understanding various people and issues in the community--and identifying possible responses to them
  • reflecting on the service dimension of Christian faith and on God's purpose for one's life

The goal of empowering students requires a certain process of orien-tation to the program. For example, doing self-assessment activities, surveying community needs, listening to guest speakers on various service options, being trained and supervised in the service work, participating in reflection activities, and experiencing closure and celebration are all needed to achieve the goal. Because empowering students is a more demanding job than simply linking up students with service opportunities, the program coordinator must be allowed sufficient time for the empowerment to happen.

The Centrality of the Students

Cathedral High School is often praised for its service program, but the choices that the students make regarding how they will go about the process contribute most to its success. True, the school requires the course; and true, the service-site supervisors, the program coordinator, and the course's structure can provide valuable support. But the students themselves decide whether to just go through the motions or to do extraordinary things. That they so often choose the latter continually impresses and inspires me.

The Key to Motivation: Service Work That Matters

Speaking to a tenth-grade class, a twelfth-grader shared that his confirmation project a couple of years before had involved tearing up newspapers for a local animal shelter. When he entered the Christian Service course the following year, the boy chose a very different type of service--teaching in his parish's ninth-grade religion program and being a peer helper, providing orientation and other support to younger students in our school. "I'm sure the animal shelter appreciated my work," he said, "but I wanted to do something that really made a difference."

Young people have the capacity--and need the opportunity--to be active participants and partners in society. They also have remarkable gifts of idealism and hope. They hunger to make a difference to other people, to know that their presence in the world matters.

The service work most often chosen and praised by students includes being a peer helper, coaching, teaching in parish religious education programs, and being in "Special Friends," a weekly Big Brother/Big Sister&endash;type program at a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed youth. Notice the qualities that these tasks have in common:

1. They are interpersonal rather than simply task-oriented.

2. They respond to significant needs.

3. They require leadership abilities. That is, students are expected to be role models or to have an active role in planning and carrying out the project.

I believe strongly that the availability of service experiences with these three qualities is the most motivating factor in our program.

But use caution when evaluating service opportunities according to the above criteria. Students have taught me not to discount task-oriented service activities such as tearing up newspapers for the ani-mal shelter or stuffing envelopes. Some students work more effectively in such situations, and every organization has these kinds of tasks that do meet important needs. I have seen a number of examples of task-oriented programs positively affecting students--if they are informed of the value of their work and if the service-site supervisor shows interest in the stu-dent as a whole person. The supervisor should care about the student's life and interests, and be willing to share aspects from his or her own.

The Role of Mentors

Developing the capacity to participate actively in society challenges students. Adults--parents, service-site supervisors, and the program coordinator--play an essential role in this process. Students tell me they want adult guides who are not dictators and who show interest in more than just their service work. Students appreciate mentors and companions who relate to them, listen to their stories and struggles, ask important questions, and affirm and celebrate students' authentic discoveries with them.


Service activities are often promoted because one learns from experience. Yet experience in itself is not an automatic guarantee of learning, or we would all be much smarter than we are. It is through reflection upon such experiences that understanding and the development of values can occur.

A service-site supervisor once told me, "Youth are excellent observers, but often lousy interpreters." Particularly when roles or issues are new to them, students may express confusion or offer inaccurate conclusions about the meaning of their experiences. They need support and guidance in sorting out these experiences. Our program offers various avenues of support, such as small-group processing sessions, individual journaling, and a concluding project. In addition, many service-site supervisors include training or processing sessions throughout the students' assignments.

Guided reflection can be quite challenging for both the students and the adults involved. Because our educational system often treats students as passive recipients of information, they are not used to the role of active learners. They may look for ready-made answers or offer only generic observations and reflections. I have learned to avoid being primarily a dispenser of knowledge. Instead, I focus on attentive listening and questioning--on being a "midwife of meaning" (to borrow a phrase from a service-learning workshop).

This mentoring-midwifing perspective has affected my approach to the formal religious education component of the program. Rather than offering extensive "religious input" before the students' actual service work, I provide such material throughout the project. This includes biblical passages and stories, quotations from individuals and church documents, movies of Christian role models of service, and prayer experiences. I invite the students to reflect on possible connections between this material and their service experiences. These discussions often contain greater insight and a greater sense of reality than discussions in a typical classroom. Students express and retain faith perspectives in more integrated ways than if they had gotten all the "religious input" before their service experiences.

Helping the Inner Movements

From my experiences of "walking alongside" students in their service work, I have become attentive to a series of progressions in them:

The movement from guilt to compassion:

When students encounter significant needs in others' lives, they are often overwhelmed by a sense of guilt about how easy their own life is. Such guilt initially plays a valuable part in waking us up to the needs of others and to the call to respond, but guilt will not serve as a lasting source of motivation. It is too focused on one's own self. A person motivated by guilt will focus more on meeting his or her own desire not to feel guilty than on meeting others' needs. Compassion--an openness to experiencing the suffering of others and a desire to help them meet their needs--is the motivation that lasts and the one that I affirm whenever I notice it.

The movement from tragedy to hope:

Particularly for students whose lives are relatively pleasant, encountering significant needs in others and the difficulty of addressing such needs can lead to a deep sense of tragedy. Our society tries to cope with pain through denial or escape. Too often, "hope" means feeling better about things by turning away from pain. Yet the Gospel is the Good News that shows how authentic hope comes from a journey that directly faces and enters into pain. Service experiences are an opportunity to reflect on and pray about that journey.

The movement from direct service to social justice:

When encountering another's pain, the typical--and important--response is to seek direct ways to respond to the person's immediate needs. But pain and suffering in the present is often the result of past events or social structures that have been affecting someone for many years. Students need to be encouraged to seek the underlying causes of evident needs, and to develop the skills needed to address them.

The movement from occasional concern to integrated lifestyle:

Our society certainly praises volunteerism. The term generally means "freely giving of my extra time," and doing so is considered generous while not doing so is also acceptable in our society. Viewed from that perspective, service work can be thought of as a nice gesture, even an important activity to have in one's life, but not essential.

Yet Jesus' message suggests something more--that service be an orientation of our entire life. We are called to live lives of service, to have that value integrated into all of our relationships, work, decisions, prayer. Failing to live lives of service is costly. It costs others, for their needs will be neglected, and it costs ourselves, for according to the words attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, "it is in giving that we receive; . . . in dying [to ourselves] that we are born to eternal life."

We live in a culture that is saturated with individualism and self-interest. Inviting students to reflect on the implications of their service experiences for all dimensions of their life--for example, their future career and their relationships--is a critical opportunity for them to discover the meaning of the Christian message.

The movement from being saviors to being companions:

Wanting to "fix" another's difficult situation is a wish frequently expressed by students early in their service work. Disillusionment usually follows the realization that the people one serves must be allowed the responsibility of making their own choices, even when those choices differ from what the student thinks is best. Yet beyond such doses of reality are some important insights:

  • Those we serve have gifts to offer us, including ones that can address needs we have.
  • Healing and justice flow out of being with others, not simply out of doing things for them.
  • We are not God. That is, we do not have the capacity to save the world ourselves, yet there is a God who invites, accompanies, and empowers us to participate as co-creators of the Reign of God.

The Need for Closure and Celebration

It is easy to become so preoccupied with ensuring that the tasks of the program (such as the required number of service hours, the journals, etc.) are finished that I sometimes fail to appreciate the critical role of closure and celebration experiences. When this dimension of a program is neglected, an opportunity to help the students grow and become empowered can be lost. If students have the opportunity to express to others what their experiences have meant to them, that meaning becomes more a part of them. When the community takes time to listen to and celebrate such expressions, its commitment to the value of service is proclaimed and deepened.

To be sure, the program already has some closure built in. Students do a final project to express what they have learned. Their efforts are recognized through awards at the schools' year-end assembly and by some community organizations. Some of the service-site supervisors also have recognition activities.

I am still searching for ways to develop this aspect of our program. One idea I have is a year-end liturgy and reception for all students involved in service, their parents and other relatives, faculty and staff, school board members, and those whom the students served. A gathering such as this would be a powerful image of the significance of the students' service work.

At the moment, such a closing liturgy is just an idea. But I offer it, as I offer this entire article, in the hope that it will reaffirm what others are already doing, or spark the imagination of those of us who want to do more.

Suggestions for Further Information

Conrad, Dan, and Diane Hedin. Youth Service: A Guidebook for Developing and Operating Effective Programs. Washington, DC: Independent Sector, 1987.

National Youth Leadership Council. Growing Hope: A Sourcebook on Integrating Youth Service into the School Curriculum. Roseville, MN: National Youth Leadership Council, 1991.

O'Connell, Frances Hunt. Giving and Growing: A Student's Guide for Service Projects. Winona, MN: Saint Mary's Press, 1990. (Also has a leader's manual for the program coordinator.)

National Youth Leadership Council
1910 West County Road B
Roseville, MN 55113
612-631-3672 or 800-366-6952

Kevin LaNave

teaches religion and serves as Religious Studies department chair at Cathedral High School and John XXIII Middle School, Saint Cloud, Minnesota. He and his wife, Katy, have two children.


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Published October 1, 1992.