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December 7, 2011 ‘Tis the Season to do Community Service By Alycia Zimmerman
Grades 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

    Community service – it always sounds good in theory, but realistically, who has the time for long, complicated service projects? Last month, as we were working outside in our school garden, some of my concerned students asked if we could do something to help the guests at a soup kitchen in sight of our school. Thanks to their initiative, my students began a service project that collected 1,000 toiletries in less than three weeks to donate to the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen. Through this project, I learned that community service can be easy and quick, yet still be very meaningful.


    My students collected travel sized toiletries for a local soup kitchen.











    Community Service in Three Weeks or Less

    With the December holidays mere weeks away, your lesson plan book is probably as messy as mine with scribbled notes marking rehearsals for the Winter Choral Show, class celebrations, and end of unit assessments. On top of that, my students already have the December jitters. Before you roll your eyes and understandably sigh that you can’t fit one more thing into your schedule, let me show you how a quick and easy community service project can add meaning to the December chaos without adding stress.


    A Musical Overview

    The Twelve Days of a Toiletry Drive

    In twelve measly school days,
    Community service is easy as can be:
    Twelve days collecting,
    Eleven posters hanging,
    Ten minutes a-visiting, (the soup kitchen)
    Nine collection boxes filling,
    Eight morning announcements,
    Seven connected assignments, (math and reading)
    Six teams a-presenting,
    Five minutes counting, (each day)
    Four notices sent home,
    Three phone calls, (to the soup kitchen)
    Two periods sorting,
    And a stronger class community!


    The Logistics

    I suggest that you do as much planning as possible with your students during school time. This shifts the responsibility for the entire project to them as project leaders, not just participants. It also means that the project won’t become a ton of extra work during prep periods for you.

    Step 1: Lay the Groundwork

    Decide who you are going to help with your service project. In my case in was easy, since we are less than a block away from an amazing soup kitchen. I simply phoned the soup kitchen ahead of time to find out what types of donations they needed. It turned out that they didn’t want food donations (they order their food in bulk,) but needed toiletries to distribute to their guests instead. Depending on your community and your timeframe, you may want to decide on the nature of your service project and speak with the recipient organization before you discuss the project with your students.

    Step 2: Create a To-Do List

    I held a class meeting with my students to plan our project. I explained the who/what/when/where details to my students, and then we worked as a group to generate a “how” list. This chart served as our plan for the rest of the project.

    Step 3: Publicity!

    My students decided on a three-pronged strategy to publicize our toiletry drive. They created posters to hang around the school; working in small teams, they visited all of the other classes in our school to present the initial project details; and most mornings they announced the running toiletry count to the school. My students assigned me the task of copying and distributing fliers to each teacher.

    Step 4: Collect and Count

    We decided to leave a collection box outside our classroom door and one in the school lobby so that we wouldn’t be distracted each time a student delivered a donation. Towards the end of each day, a rotating team of students collected and counted the donations for the day and add the number to our running total. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have my students write math problems using this data.


    Students count the toiletries we collect each day.


    Step 5: D-Day! (Donation Day)

    On Donation Day, my students sorted all of the toiletries into categories. Then teams of students counted the toiletries in each category and recorded the totals on a chart. My students were amazed by our grand total of 980 toiletries! (As a small, high-poverty school, I was also surprised that we had collected so many!)

    A chart of the total number of toiletries we collected.

     We bagged up the toiletries and my students proudly carried the bags to the soup kitchen. Ten minutes later, our delivery was finished and my grinning students filed out into the frosty air.

    Students deliver toiletries to the soup kitchen.

    Step 6: Reflect and Celebrate

    In keeping with the quick and easy nature of this project, our “celebration” consisted of a school wide P.A. announcement sharing our grand total and congratulating all participants. Perhaps the most meaningful part of the experience was our class conversation during which my students reflected on the process. Students voiced their excitement at having led the entire school through this project, they shared their initial nervousness at visiting a soup kitchen, and more than anything else, they expressed their pride at having helped needier members of our community. One boy explained, “I never knew we kids could do something like this!”

    Students proudly show the bars of soap they've collected.

    I hope I’ve given you a glimpse at just how easy a class community service project can be. Of course, I still have ambitions of someday doing a comprehensive service-learning project with my students, a project that will be all-consuming and change the way my students see the world. However, I can now attest that even a small community service project provides a huge pay-off in terms of team building, empowerment, and awakening a spirit of activism and social responsibility.


    Resources on the Web:

    • I like the kids version of the website for introducing community service concepts to students.
    • The website provides a wealth of resources for teachers interested in philanthropy, character education, and community service. They provide more than 1,600 lesson plans, literature guides, and tool kits for community service projects. I found this service project toolkit particularly useful in planning my class’s toiletry drive.
    • The National Service Learning Clearinghouse provides a K-12 Service Learning Project Planning Toolkit available for download on their website. This resource provides a comprehensive framework for planning a community service project.

    Use the comments section below to share about the community service projects you have done with your students or what you plan to do this year. I can’t think of a better holiday gift to our students than to instill in them the importance of philanthropy and civic engagement. 


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Susan Cheyney