The Power of Community Service with Youth

By Anna Barry

                I’ve had the opportunity to do a few service projects with my youth.  One has been my service project for KEYS, but I’m also the designated field-trip-goer at my site.  And a few of those “field trips” has been community service with the Behavioral Specialist Mr. Berk Claggett.  He does a program called Stash the Trash in which students can leave school and help beautify downtown Pittsburgh.  Students must be referred by teachers and have good behavior in order to participate.  I did the program with him once in October and once in April.  In addition, my community service project was helping the Riverfront Trail area in partnership with Friends of the Riverfront nonprofit organization.  Seven of my sixth grade students spent a few hours planting elderberries, removing invasive weeds, and chopping down Japanese knot weed.

It’s been a great time.

I never realized how much of an effect I had on students until I watched them help their surroundings and interact with the environment.  While participating in Stash the Trash in October, I got to chat with some eighth grade students that I don’t normally, or ever, see.  When I helped Mr. Claggett with Stash the Trash in April, some of my sixth grade students that I regularly tutor got to come.  The kids were so excited to get out of school, but they were even more excited to pick up trash and be helpers.  They each got their own plastic bag and gloves, and Mr. Claggett designated me to lead the way for students.  We walked down Smithfield Street, past the McDonalds, and thru Market Square picking up garbage and being humbled.  There wasn’t a lot of trash to be cleaned until we got to the riverfront area where we found plastic bottles, papers, and little pieces of garbage everywhere.

We went to walk down by the water, and the students had a lot of questions about the rivers.  I got to give Darius and Zaire a lesson that my father gave me when I was about their age, which is that the Allegheny comes from the north, the Monongahela from the south, and they both form the Ohio.  The boys listened intently.  And I told them, just as my dad did, that George Washington was able to cross the Monongahela river when it crossed it in the 1700s.  They were amazed.

The kids learned that when it rains a lot, the sewage water will get dumped into the river.  Treyshawn asked, “Sewage, Ms. Barry.  That like poop?”  They all burst laughing and were disgusted when I told them the truth.  “I’m never swimming in those rivers ever,” he said.

Darius and Zaire literally ran to get some trash in the middle of the Point when I pointed it out to them.  Mr. Claggett and I just looked at each other and chuckled at them, proud that our students were the ones, of all the people in the park, who wanted to RUN to pick up some trash.

My seven sixth graders did an excellent job with the service project.  They did what they were asked to do without questions, and they did it with smiles on their faces.  This whole “doing what I am asked to do” thing does not come easy for 12 year olds, and they got dirty trying to help.  They removed a bunch of invasive Japanese knot weed, and it seemed like they took that mission to heart.  They climbed a small hillside to remove it and proudly screamed, “Look, Ms. Barry!”  when they got a big spike of it out of the ground.  It was an impressive feat.  They even got close to the ground to remove invasive weeds from the trail area and to remove invasive vines from a tree trying to grow near the water.   They planted eight elderberry plants, and they had all kinds of questions for the Friends of the Riverfront staff who helped us—questions like “will we eat these?”  “how high will it grow?”  “why aren’t they bigger?”  “what’s the best way to do this?”

And that’s been the most satisfying part of being involved with a community service project with low-income youth—that they kept asking, how can I do this better?  For some students who are so used to being told that they are the “bad ones,” it was rejuvenating to see them helping out their community in the most effective way that they could.  Their energy and enthusiasm about helping the environment and helping with my service project made me realize that impact is cyclical—the kids were helping me and their community as I was helping them as the community was giving them the opportunity to make change.

Leading youth to this awareness and coming into it myself has enabled me not only to realize the value of community service but also the power that it has for “at-risk” populations who can become empowered leaders through service.


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