When the pandemic virtually shut down face-to-face interactions between people last spring, it looked like the volunteer program in a central Ohio suburban school district would be paused for the year.
But it turns out that with some tweaks to the annual program, not only were students able to participate, but in a way, they became even more connected to their community.
“The students who were really determined, made it happen,” says Jeanne Gogolski, a service-learning coordinator in Ohio. In the past, students have built houses around the world, worked with orphanages in Africa, and raised money and awareness for the Lost Boys of Sudan.
This year, students read books over Zoom for elementary students, ran errands for house-bound neighbors, and decorated a local park with inspirational messages, in addition to making masks for residents.
Community service “is part of the DNA of our community. It’s one of the reasons people want to live here,” Gogolski adds.
Last year, the state of Ohio changed its graduation requirements for all students, starting with the class of 2023. Students will now need to earn one of three locally defined “diploma seals.” Students can meet this requirement through sports, extracurricular clubs, work-based learning, or a community service project.
In a normal year, Gogolski’s students in middle and high school are required to spend at least six hours per year volunteering. That’s more than 3,500 students who need to find projects, keep track of hours, and have their work confirmed. The whole district uses x2VOL, which makes tracking and managing service easier for both students and school workers, Gogolski says.
The web-based tracking and reporting platform not only eliminates paper from the process and makes record keeping and verification much simpler, but it has also allowed the district to open more opportunities to students, the coordinator says. While many projects occur annually, any group looking for school volunteers can have its event information posted on x2VOL’s site, complete with contact information so that sign-ups are faster.
The platform allows the district to capture students’ reflections and receive comments from organizers, Gogolski says. Because her program connects with their college and career readiness solution from Naviance, students and administrators can use a single sign-on meaning they manage student experiences on both platforms with one login.
Additionally, the Educational Service Center of Central Ohio will use x2VOL for the eight counties it serves, says Christine Galvin, the agency’s director of college and career success. Many of the schools covered by ESSCO use Naviance so having a consistent program used throughout the region will both allow her group to offer area-wide volunteer opportunities and facilitate information sharing about projects between districts.
The new state graduation requirements also focus on work-based learning, letting students discover new areas of interest, receive credit for their jobs, gain leadership skills, and ultimately grow as individuals through reflection on their experiences.
“I see x2VOL as a system where we can share regional work-based learning opportunities for students in order to collaborate and work regionally to widen employer partners,” said Galvin. “x2VOL can be utilized to help us share that information between districts.”
Gogolski says that in her school district, the six-hour service requirement is just a minimum and many students surpass that benchmark. Once the limits wrought by the pandemic are over, she expects the number of students earning the President’s Volunteer Service Award to increase especially now that record keeping is simplified. This boost, she believes, could lead to more students being eligible for post-secondary grants and awards.
The exercise of reflecting on their service has helped some students make life-changing decisions as they realize both what type of work they like and what type of work they can’t envision for their future. “Some students realize they have a gift for talking to people. Some students will work for the same organization for three to four years, creating relationships.”
One of Gogolski’s favorite volunteer efforts involved both high schoolers and fourth graders. The older students, as part of their environmental science class, taught the younger students about honeysuckle, an invasive plant. The younger students learned what it looked like and the damage it caused to the area, but it wasn’t until the whole group boarded a bus and spent a day cutting it honeysuckle out of area parks, that the problem hit home.
On the bus ride back, both elementary and high school students pointed out all the places they saw the plant growing wild along the road, in the woods, and in neighborhoods. “That makes learning come alive in a way that is engaging and real,” she says.
But that project is far from the most inspirational she has seen. For the past eight years, Gogolski’s students have formed a partnership with the Lost Boys of Sudan, the roughly 20,000-person group who were displaced or orphaned during the Sudanese Civil War from 1987 to 2005. The group banded together to walk to safety during the fighting.
When several members of the Lost Boys ended up at nearby Ohio State University, they came to the school to tell their story to the rapt students, Gogolski says. They told of eating grass to survive and of friends who weren’t strong enough to climb trees when the lions came. During the presentation, “there were hundreds of students and nobody moved,” she added.
When students asked how they could help the Lost Boys of Sudan, the college students explained how while their villages were being rebuilt, they were short on medical supplies. It spawned a mission. Over a couple of years, Gogolski’s students raised $60,000 for the group. The effort turned into a club at the high school which has inspired even the graduated high schoolers to came back and explain how the work shaped their world view.
“When those kids hear the word ‘genocide,’ they have a different feeling around that,” she says.
One of the best parts of our requirement, says Gogolski, is that community service work can be done no matter a student’s academic or athletic ability. “Our students are on equal footing. Special needs kids aren’t exempt.”
Whether students are participating in work-based learning or service, they can track and reflect on their experiences molding them into well-rounded individuals.
“It’s available to every student at the high school,” she continues. And the work pays dividends far beyond those being helped. “When you’ve helped someone else, you’ve built your own social capital, filled your own bucket.”
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