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The value of community service

By Kara Kubarych

What is the value of community service? Should it be a school requirement? What do students learn and gain from it?

I have often found myself asking these questions. When I started volunteering at Heat Start with my 7th grade homeroom class, I began to develop my personal answers to such questions. Every time I sat down to read a story I’d have little kids scrambling to sit in my lap and smothering me with hugs and kisses. I felt that I was where I was supposed to be. I knew right then in the 7th grade that I loved service because of the incredible reciprocal process of the act. As the children smiled and laughed and enveloped themselves in my words, I watched them light up with energy and excitement, leaving behind, for at least a couple of hours, the neglect and struggle many of them faced at home.

Since then, community service has become a major part of who I am, what I do, and what I believe. My relationship with an 8th grade Sudanese refugee, who I began tutoring during my junior year, has blossomed into a profound friendship, full of daily phone conversations, weekends spent together, and hours of reading and writing poems together. She is not someone who I go to help once a week or once a month. She is part of my life. She makes it rich and meaningful.

To me, there is much to be gained from helping others, because all parties involved are enhanced by the experience. But I wonder where the motivation to do service comes from for most people. Is it intrinsic or imposed? Some people may be raised providing service with their families or may participate in outreach work with religious groups. For others, the motivation comes from school. Some may get involved in service because of an earnest interest in engaging in the community, while others may be compelled to participate in order to fulfill the school requirement or build an attractive college resume.

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All of this begs the question; should the school require that students complete a defined amount of community service hours in order to graduate?

In my opinion, the answer is yes. What is there to lose from stepping outside of one’s comfort zone and meeting people from other walks of life or engaging in fundraising efforts to help others gain a brighter future? There is nothing to lose in an investment of time. But there is much to gain-perspective, compassion, respect, hope, friends, joy and purpose.

Moreover, community service opportunities exist in countless forms. Some people participate in service through political engagement and activism, others may prefer environmental preservation or inner-city development, and others still may travel abroad to help fight global poverty. There is something for everyone.

Sure, there are ways to game the system. Sticking a cookie sheet of store-bought dough into the oven for every bake sale may be enough to fulfill the school’s hours requirement. But even in that case, those Toll House cookies are generating funds to support worthy organizations. And those same cookies are ideally making students aware of the range of causes that students can support, from assistance for flood victims in New Orleans, to building a school in Kenya, to the helping stock the San Diego Food Bank. Service can be local or global, limited only by the imagination, commitment and initiative of participants.

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Undoubtedly some students get more out of service than others, just like some get more out of history or biology or math than others. Service may be a window into how the world works-how religion, culture, geography and economics are intertwined to make up a complex global dynamic full of conflict and civil strife as well as idealism and civil rights. The study of academic subjects may make up that window for some, or it may serve as a window pane through which service and learning meld to form a broader picture.

To me, it is this synthesis and synergy which brings education to life. I could read about President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and his founding of the Head Start program, and I could research and study the war in Sudan. But it is through my experiences with the children at Head Start and with Sudanese refugee teens that the words of books, newspapers and magazines have come alive and bridged the gap between theory and reality.

Schools all across the nation should require that students participate in service in one form or another. It is not about the hours recorded. It’s about the experiences gained and lessons learned from seeing the world through the eyes of others that allow us to become more conscious, engaged and enlightened citizens of the world.

Kara Kubarych is a senior at La Jolla Country Day School where she is co-editor-in-chief of The Palette.