Cleaning up Community Service

Last Sunday my son and I joined a group from his middle school for a community service project. We cleaned up trash from a local park. We walked in the woods, enjoyed the Spring weather, and picked up about 25 pounds of plastic bags, bottles, cans, styrofoam, scrap metal, and other miscellany. It was a lovely morning and we felt good about ourselves. And then we went on to have a normal day.

Many (most? all?) schools these days require volunteer hours from their students. It sounds like a great idea -- instilling an understanding of the value of community service, engaging in active civic duty, creating mensches.

To be honest, I have never been fond of this structure. It certainly provides a benefit, and like Maimonides’ first level of charitable giving (giving grudgingly) it still counts as a mitzvah. But, it feels like something gets lost in translation when donating one’s time and effort is mandatory in order to fulfill a graduation requirement instead of by choice.

A 2018 study by the University of Maryland School of Public Policy*  found that volunteering among high school and college students has not changed significantly since 2008, and that of older adults has declined significantly. The study’s recommendation was that while interest in community service remains strong, there is a need for better education about what constitutes volunteerism and the opportunity for quality engagement.

Schools that mandate community service are missing opportunities to bridge the gap between sympathy and action. As students work with disadvantaged populations are they awakening their perceptions on privilege? As groups plant trees, weed gardens and clean up parks are they learning about the threats humanity poses to the environment? As they prepare and serve food in food kitchens are they understanding the problem of food insecurity?

School mandated volunteerism has a place in the education of our kids. Like most things, though, it can become so much more with a little bit of teaching and a little bit of introspection.

Last Sunday, we could have had a brief discussion with our fellow volunteers about what we found in the park and creek bed. How did all those plastic bags get there? Are there ways of preventing the pollution? What is the effect on the local ecosystem? But we didn’t. We all went our separate ways, and missed the chance to create a lasting lesson and a paradigm for future behavior for the kids (and the adults).

*Grimm, Robert T., Jr., and Nathan Dietz. 2018. “Good Intentions, Gap in Action: The Challenge of Translating Youth’s High Interest in Doing Good into Civic Engagement.” Research Brief: Do Good Institute, University of Maryland.