Five middle school students, all wearing “I choose kindness” T shirts, sit around a table brainstorming how to turn that message into action.
The tweens and teens could be outside on this steamy summer day, riding bikes with friends to a park or cooling down in a community pool. Instead, they’ve signed up for, and committed to, an unusual gifted-and-talented summer school class offered through West Suburban Summer School.
For five days, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Hannah, 13, Annette, 12, Adelaide, 11, Allison, 12, and Ben, 13, designed activities to bring more good energy into the world.
That included a visit to Prism, a social services agency in Golden Valley, where the students worked for five hours, sorting donations, rearranging food on the shelves and doing some cleaning. Yes, they were invited back.
The inaugural class of “Read, Set, Give!” — held at Maple Grove Middle School — was developed by Betsy Fine, a behavior intervention teacher at Weaver Lake STEM school, and Sarah Bailey, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Brooklyn Middle School, both in the Osseo school district.
“We have all experienced issues we wish to change,” they wrote in the course description. “In addition, we’ve heard the stories of people making a difference. Now, you get the chance to be that person!”
The teachers noted a lack of volunteering opportunities for tweens and teens, a demographic typically eager to give back but too often turned away at social service agencies unless accompanied by an adult.
Fine and Bailey’s solution: Bring speakers into their classroom to inspire the students to develop their own service projects. Karen Skagerberg, co-founder of Maple Grove’s “Beyond the Yellow Ribbon,” told the students about her nonprofit’s mission to provide resources, meals, child care, letters and much more to military members current and past.
The students then made cards for the servicemen and women, and stuffed care packages with Starbursts, nuts, beef jerky, toothbrushes, even air freshener.
They also learned about the nonprofit Spoonful Apparel which donates 50% of profits to fight childhood hunger. (It’s also where they got their kindess T-shirts.)
The best part, though, was choosing their own service projects. Adelaide, who loves to bake, is planning to hold a lemonade stand this summer, with proceeds benefiting a homeless shelter.
Annette’s passion is protecting animals in their natural habitat. She planned to create posters and pamphlets to help people understand the dangers of ocean litter, pesticides, fertilizers and noise and light pollution. Hannah and Allison focused on protecting the rights and health of LGBTQ youth. Ben focused on helping people do a better job of recycling plastic.
“I personally like helping out,” said Allison, who earlier traveled to Rockford, Ill., with her church to stock food at a food shelf and sort clothes at a donation center.
Hannah agreed. “It’s really cool to be able to do our own service project.”
Fine even sneaked in a bit of science — brain science, that is — emphasizing that volunteering for community service can help combat the effects of stress, anxiety and anger.
“What’s that called?” she asked her charges.
“Neuroplasticity!” said Hannah, a student at Wayzata East Middle School.
“Yes!” Fine said. “It’s important to focus on the positive,” she continued. “There’s a natural tendency to focus on the negative, because we once had to pay attention to the approaching mountain lion for our survival. But, today, we need to rewire our brains to pay attention to the positive.”
Bailey added that the teachers were grateful to District 287 administrators for being “very embracing of this concept. We didn’t get huge enrollment, but these beautiful few people signed up to spend their week with us. Administrators were so excited about the project that they let us run it with just these kids, and we hope to grow it next year.”
Leslie Hanson, the district’s gifted and talented program coordinator, said her support for “Ready, Set, Give” was largely due to the teachers’ “infectious enthusiasm.”
She also has a personal interest in volunteering, she said. “I want the young people to adopt that interest as a life skill.”
Bailey is confident that, in just five days, those seeds were richly planted.
“These guys are ready to take action,” Bailey said. “It’s more than I hoped for.”