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This story is part of a regular series, "Learning Lessons: Great ideas, Great schools," that features educators who are doing great things or conducting great programs in Pennsylvania's public schools. For other stories in the series go to www.psea.org/learninglessons.
At Bethel Springs Elementary School in the Garnet Valley School District, students are learning how to make a difference at a young age. Elementary kids in grades 2-5 take part in service learning projects through the Helping Hands Club.
While these types of clubs are popular in high school, students in the Delaware County school are getting a head start on doing good for others.
"I think it's a common misconception that kids are too young to do real community service," said Becky Konkle, a supplemental learning support teacher. "Our club offers students the opportunity to engage in age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate service projects.
"We teach students about the populations that we will serve and engage them in creating their own ideas about how to serve. It's important that kids feel empowered and capable in a world that changes so rapidly."
Creating a place to serve
Fourth-grade teacher Lynn Cashell started the group about 18 years ago as a school spirit club with a service learning component at Garnet Valley Elementary School.
"We created building-wide spirit days to build community with some service learning, like food and book drives," Cashell said. "The service learning increased and when I moved to Bethel Springs Elementary School, I changed the name to Helping Hands Club and focused completely on service. Becky joined me as a co-sponsor and added the idea of field trips to take the kids to experience firsthand how their service impacted others."
The group participates in a variety of projects, including creating placemats and hot chocolate treat bags for the Ronald McDonald House; taking valentines to a local nursing home for Valentine's Day; creating gift tags for the district's "Hearts to Homes" program, which provides holiday gifts to district families in need; sending cards and candy to the troops; and raising money for Hurricane Katrina victims.
"Our students learn there is a wide world beyond their community and people are in need," Cashell said. "Most importantly, they learn that even though they are young children, they can help others and impact their lives."
The Helping Hands Club is an empowering place where everyone is welcome.
"We have many of our students with special needs involved in the club, furthering the inclusion model and offering a way for these students to be contributing members of our community," Cashell said.
Planting a seed
Both Cashell and Konkle noted that starting service learning at such a young age has a positive impact on students years after they leave the club. Making community service a part of their lives early on means it will become a habit for the future.
"Many of our students go on to middle school and high school, and continue engaging in the service clubs offered there," Konkle said. "A number of our students have also come back as alumni volunteers to help on Monday afternoons. We like to think that we, along with the families of our students, plant that seed early."
David Stango is a sixth-grader who participated in the Helping Hands Club for three years. He continues his community service involvement as a member of student council in middle school.
"The benefits from being a part of Helping Hands are that you get to be nice and do fun stuff," Stango said. "It's fun to be kind and do things for other people."
Positive experiences for all
Cashell believes being in a club like Helping Hands provides a positive experience for the children.
"The students learn the good feeling gained from helping others," she said. "It's not always about getting a trophy or ribbon for participation. We serve because it's the right thing to do."
The encouraging feedback and unwavering support received by the educators have been outstanding.
"We have no budget or funding for our club, so some of the materials come out of our own pockets," Cashell said. "Our principal has been extremely generous, providing payment for the school bus transportation we use to visit our recipients."
Parents and the surrounding community have also helped the club in many ways.
"Garnet Valley has been extremely generous and supportive of our club," Konkle said. "When we do collection drives, our families really pull out all the stops."
The feedback they've gotten from those on the receiving end of the service is especially invaluable.
"The recipients of our service have always been appreciative, often sending us thank you notes or emails of gratitude," Cashell said. "The most touching letters came from the men and women in the adult literacy program after we did a book drive for new books they could give to their children or other young family members. Each participant wrote us a letter telling us what book they chose and whom it was for, plus how much it meant to them."
To learn more about the Bethel Springs Elementary Helping Hands Club and the impact it has, follow the program on Twitter, @BSEHelpingHands.
Watch this program in action at www.psea.org/LearningLessons.
Got a story? If you know about a program that would make a good feature for "Learning Lessons: Great ideas, Great schools," please email Cassandra Davis at email@example.com.