Students pay it forward

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Gavin Perkins no longer reads his baby books or watches the movies he loved as a toddler. Although he remained attached to them, the 9-year-old decided to part with his Barney and Teletubbies books,and Mary Poppins and Power Ranger movies so other kids could enjoy them.

But the value of his sacrifice didn't settle in until he toured the waiting rooms and the family areas of Nationwide Children's Hospital and the Ronald McDonald House. "It makes me tingle inside," said Gavin, a third-grader at Westerville's Huber Ridge Elementary. "It feels so good to help."

For years, Westerville elementary students have pitched in at school-sponsored charity events. But this year is the first in which every child in grades 3 through 12 was asked to volunteer.

Westerville is the first district in Franklin County to ask so many students to donate at least three hours of community service. Experts say schools typically have volunteering requirements for high-school students, but extending the rule to little ones is less common.

"We want them to see it as a way of life, a way of learning for the community," said school-board member Cindy Crowe. Students have been asked to track their efforts, and the school board might make community service an annual requirement.

Crowe said the plan is still being formed; a community-service commendation could eventually be part of Westerville's high-school diplomas. Studies have found that so-called Òservice learners' assess and solve problems better and connect with fellow students and teachers.

Educators say those skills are especially important with young ones, who are learning about the world around them. Since 2000, this generation of young people has been exposed to the Sept. 11 attack, the Iraq war, the tsunami in Southeast Asia and Hurricane Katrina.

"None of us should be surprised that young people are so engaged to the problems in the world," said Steve Culbertson, president of Youth Service America, a national resource center for service organizations that is based in Washington, D.C.

"They are not running from them; they are embracing them and looking for ways to solve them. Nationwide, about 38 percent of students ages 12 to 18 participated in school-based service, according to a 2005 survey by the Corporation for National & Community Service. The Washington-based group provides grant money, training and support for volunteer organizations.

More schools are looking for real-life civics lessons. For the past eight years, Bexley Middle School has dedicated four days each year for service projects. The projects are worth it, said Principal Harley Williams. "It's part of developing the whole child."

Gahanna Lincoln High School started a class in January called Leadership Tomorrow in which students work on service-learning projects that develop problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.

As a way to inspire service-learning projects throughout Westerville's elementary schools, the principal of Mark Twain Elementary organized a leadership summit for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. Principal Scott Ebbrecht's summit is in its second year and has spawned various projects, including the collection drive at Huber Ridge.

Two dozen students organized the drive, and last month, they got to see where the 393 movies and 723 books were going. Second-grade teacher Kristan Robertson, one of the group's supervisors, said the trip to Children's and the Ronald McDonald House helped the kids understand what they were doing and why it was important.

On the bus ride back to school, Gavin still felt the tingles. "Life doesn't just come and go," he said. "You have to give if you're going to receive."