How to change an already established community service project into service learning

Why change community service projects into service learning?

Holding a chick
Photo by Michigan State University Extension

Community service is a very worthwhile project within youth development. It has the potential to teach so many life skills by having youth participate and provide the service. However, if a program wants to capitalize on those learning opportunities, they should evolve their community service project into a service learning project. According to Michigan State University Extension, this can be done with a few easy steps.

Typically, for a service learning project, youth who are going to engage in the service project would be there from the very beginning. Youth would help run a needs assessment to determine what is needed, work to develop partnerships and support, and plan the event. However, in some cases there may be a well-established community service project that has been in place for a while. In this situation it may not make sense to go back and do a needs assessment and start from scratch, but instead figure out a way to morph this into a service learning project.

Service learning projects usually follow steps such as: identify a need, identify partners and stakeholders, put together a plan, hold the event, reflect back on the event, celebrate and make modifications or adjustments for the next year or next event.

If a project is already a successful community service project, an easy place to start changing it over to a service learning project may be after it is finished for this cycle. In this plan, the youth that have experienced the project would be utilized to start planning for the next event.

The following is an example of a project that could be changed from community service into service learning.

An already established program of raising market poultry for the local food bank exists in a 4-H program. Youth are given up to six chicks from the county 4-H office to grow and then donate to the local food bank. Typically, the youth sign up to participate and staff order the birds. This is followed by the youth picking up the chicks, resources, one bag of food and one bag of bedding. Youth raise the birds and then must drop them off at the processing plant on the date that was pre-determined and in their timeline of the project. The youth have little interaction with the program coordinators unless something goes wrong and do not participate in any of the planning.

To change this, the first step would be to hold a debriefing or reflection meeting after the project is complete. The Debrief Wheel is a helpful tool to hand out as soon as youth come in the room. This will help them to get their thoughts on paper before you start the process. These are not collected, but allow the participants to use them for their own use.

The facilitator should have newsprint available and record notes from each reflection piece. If there are a lot of youth participating, then utilizing a youth volunteer to record the notes is the best practice. The facilitator would lead the youth in an open discussion on the following factors provided by Agricultural Extension Service, University of Tennessee.

Discuss what?

Have the youth look back and ask what they did. What did they experience for the first time? What funny, serious, planned or unplanned things happened?

Possible examples:

  • Observe and remember. “I remember getting the chicks home and realizing I wasn’t ready for them. I had a light, water and a cage, but forgot to put the bedding in and get a feeder.”
  • “As I was raising the birds, I didn’t know when they should be moved to a bigger enclosure.”
  • “I didn’t realize that if I didn’t keep the birds in a very clean environment, their feet could get bubbly and their feathers would become so dirty.”

So what?

What did the service mean to the youth? Why was it important? Do they know how many families do not have enough food in our county? Do they know how many families their birds helped? Putting some of these facts up on the wall may help them to have a deeper reflection.

  • Give youth paper and markers and encourage them to draw a picture, come up with a poem, a funny quote or a memory that expresses how they felt about this project.

Now what?

What can be done next time to make this project better? Was communication good between members and coordinators? Is there still a need in the community? Does the processing plant need things done differently? Does the center that the meat was donated to need things done differently? Is the time of year acceptable? Should we expand the project? Are other changes needed?

At this point, the youth can be key partners in starting the planning for next year or the next event by using the notes collected from the reflection piece. Youth should be involved in all of the steps of the program such as the ordering process, contacting the donation center to determine the need for the upcoming year, get donations to cover the feed, bedding and birds, talk to the processor about dates that are available to bring the birds in so you know when to have your order delivered, and promoting the program to local youth to see if others would be willing to raise birds for the program.

Although the youth may not have started this project, they can quickly make it their own and it will become a very valuable service learning project for everyone involved. This simple process allowed a program that taught service life skills to develop into a program that teaches so much more. In addition, it strengthens the overall program by evaluating and analyzing it each year to allow for changes due to need, value and relevance.

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