With the city of Pasadena topping the numbers of charities per capita, the nonprofit organizations striving to make a difference and mitigate disparities among the local population through service-oriented work are acutely aware of the ongoing need for hands-on volunteers from the community.
And while small armies of adult volunteers — retirees, members of church and professional groups and concerned neighbors — often help carry the load in fundraising and other tasks for their favorite causes around town, many organizations also have realized the power of harnessing youth volunteers to consistently provide support.
Some parents, like those involved in the Pasadena Area Chapter of National Charity League, see the chance to volunteer with their children as a bonding experience. The mother-daughter nonprofit has been committed to serving the community by fostering partnerships for more than 20 years, supporting about 17 different philanthropies. The NCL program, a six-year experience spanning 7th-12th grade, professes three core pillars of service that are common to every NCL chapter.
“Our current senior class has tallied up more than 14,000 hours of hands-on service and almost double that in donation hours for things like back-to-school backpacks, baked goods and snacks, teddy bears, toothbrushes and books,” said chapter President Lyn Salembier. “Imagine if we multiplied those hands-on hours by current minimum wage … a huge donation to our city.”
Aside from the feel-good aspects of volunteering, however, Salembier knows the act of giving back fosters problem-solving, team-building, social awareness and compassion. The NCL is always updating its program to help better meet the need in the community and the interests of the young women, she said. To date, the nonprofit has focused its volunteering to help the Boys & Girls Club of Pasadena, Union Station Homeless Services, Young & Healthy, Cancer Support Community Pasadena, the Pasadena Symphony and Club 21, to name just a few.
“I believe we can always be on the lookout to become more receptive to needs around us and to the interests of volunteers,” Salembier said. “We are always looking at our list of philanthropies for overlap, diversity, hunger, illness, education, environment, animal care and social services.”
SCHOOLS DIVERSIFY GIVING BACK
Armed with enthusiasm, optimism and a fresh perspective, local youths are seeking out work in the nonprofit world more than ever, and schools are even entwining curricula with “community service” to reflect the healthy demand.
Pasadena’s Polytechnic School has a long history of volunteerism among its student body and is constantly considering how to improve on its commitment to making an impact in the community and the world at large, said Renee Larios, coordinator of Poly’s 6th-12th grade student community engagement program.
The program was created with careful foresight: “The most important thing to us is that our students connect with the world and community off campus. How can they interact with people, the planet, the animals, for the better?” Larios said. “The word ‘outreach’ implies we are the center of the universe going out to people, but we think ‘engagement’ is more reciprocal, equitable and egalitarian.”
Though Poly continues to count service hours toward graduation, the purpose of the engagement program is to encourage students to design their own sustainable goals through community outreach, Larios said. In the past few years, a student group of about 13 took a cue from the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by the United Nations member states in 2015, which provided a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. At its core are 17 “sustainable development goals,” which are an urgent call for action.
The Poly student-led group took that call to heart, developing its own book called “Invest Yourself: Pasadena,” a catalog of volunteer opportunities in the Greater Pasadena area, which it then presented to the U.N. in person.
“I’ve seen kids who are so moved by what they’ve done in community service that it has helped shape their careers,” Larios said. “That is what we are looking for — it’s not about doing the hours, per se, it’s about building a student’s character, creating lifelong good citizens with the kind of strength where they want to contribute to the good of others for the rest of their lives.”
Meanwhile, Westridge School for Girls has created the Community Action Project, a program designed to encourage a journey and growth around community service for girls between the 9th and 12th grades, said Gary Baldwin, director of Westridge’s Upper School.
CAP has been deemed very successful at Westridge, Baldwin said, noting that it is considered a “four-year journey” that sets different goals over the years, including being exposed to a variety of experiences to help students narrow down passions and interests, identify a need in the community, home in on that need and the way to make a difference, and then create a plan to get it done. Class deans help the students along the way, he added.
“You have to have an institutional level of commitment to service in order to make something like this work. What we really want them to do is think in terms of the impact they can have as an individual in the broader community of which we are a part,” said Baldwin, adding that some student projects are more ambitious than others. “Some kids absolutely seize this and suck all the marrow out of it, others need more guidance. As a community, it’s something we are always committed to and we’re always looking for how we can grow it and make it better.”
Some students have developed genuinely innovative ideas to help, Baldwin noted, like one who volunteered at a home for the developmentally disabled. The student noticed one of the clients struggling to write with a normal pen, so she developed a special pen-holding device at the school on a 3D printer.
“She identified a need and devised a solution and came up with something better than even what was commercially available. … We were told that the center was using it for several different clients now,” he added.
CATHOLIC SCHOOLS HEED THE CALL
Though local Catholic schools have recognized the call to serve as essential to their founding principles, many have, in recent years, also revamped volunteerism programs to make sure they are hitting the mark with students and communities.
La Salle College Preparatory Director of Student Life Ed O’Connor reflected on his school’s dynamic service program, extending from the freshman through senior classes. While service hours are not required at La Salle for graduation, the spirit of volunteerism has been built into the curriculum, with class retreats followed by a day of service to groups like the Los Angeles Food Bank, Union Rescue Mission, AbilityFirst and the Pasadena Unified School District, to name a few. Even the school’s motto, “Learn, Serve, Lead,” was created with giving back in mind, said O’Connor.
“We try to embrace that every day and demonstrate to our students: Enter to learn, learn to serve,” he said. “Our mission is to create lifelong servers as opposed to simply fulfilling hours for graduation. It’s a shift in thinking. We want to provide experiences for our students — they are working side by side with classmates and teachers, which really creates positive and engaging experiences.”
Students in their senior year are encouraged to choose one nonprofit agency in the community for the entire year, where they’ll spend one day per week.
“It shows them, you can really make a big difference at a place right in your backyard … This is not just a one-and-done thing. It really fosters relationships throughout the year,” O’Connor added.
A Mayfield Senior School representative said the institution has long considered its Catholic teaching to be essential to the development of empathy and promotion of justice, part of the school’s “Actions Not Words” motto. This year, the school took its commitment to serving others to a new level, launching an integrated curriculum by grade level, with theology classes now including a service-learning component.
“Service is a core part of the Holy Child mission to help others see how God is alive in our world and an active presence in our lives,” said Head of School Kate Morin.
Students participate regularly in trips to serve breakfast to the homeless, interact with differently-abled people and entertain senior citizens, all of which helps the students bolster academic learning with real-life experiences and connect life, theory and social justice, said Director of Campus Ministry Teri Gonzales.
“Service to others also helps students learn experientially about themselves, their communities and society. In this way, they are able to search and find meaning and purpose,” she said.
One of the reasons school programs across the board are modernizing and improving in recent years is very simple, school administrators say: the students. The very act of empowering youths in the community has ricocheted back to where they start. Students want more environmental projects, more ways to help those experiencing homelessness and more tangible ways to make an impact on those in the community and the world at large.
Carmen Mascarenhas, 2018 Mayfield senior class president, linked her experience there with her work at the USC Troy Camp, a nonprofit that has provided long-term mentorship for underserved youth in South Los Angeles.
“I was drawn to this incredible community because it reminded me a lot of Mayfield … where I was urged to be a servant leader and not just talk about doing good, but also actually do it,” she said. “This program changes lives — I’ve only been a counselor for a month and the kids already specifically seek me out at programming every week to ask me for help on homework, confide in me about their life and tell me they missed me all week. I am so grateful to be a part of this organization.”
STUDENTS CREATE THEIR OWN PROGRAMS
Other local schools have created volunteer programs so well managed they run themselves.
At Flintridge Prep, the Student Community Action Council was formed in 2013 with the mission “to make meaningful service an integral part of school culture and support students in creating a positive impact in the community and around the world.”
The SCAC is limited to a select group of 25 students in grades 10-12 who plan and implement community impact events, while also helping the student body find meaningful service opportunities that inspire them. Each fall, students set actionable and measurable service goals.
Student commissioner David Egan has taken charge of the group this year, organizing about eight big events on campus, including a blood drive for Huntington Hospital, a “Love Gram” fundraiser for the Los Angeles LBGT Center and environmental impact projects such as building sustainable bird feeders and reducing idling by cars in the parking lot, thereby lessening emissions.
“Community service is definitely a passion of mine. In such a privileged community it’s especially important. When you have so many resources and time to give, it’s really important to spend it helping others,” said Egan, adding that he especially enjoys encouraging students to make tangible impacts on the immediate community surrounding the school. “Sometimes you have to work extra hard to find the people and issues closest to you that need help. Once you start embarking on community service and working as a team, you can focus those efforts locally, become a leader, build really strong relationships and learn so much about those around you, which, at the end of the day, is all reflected in your own personal development.”
A condensed version of this article appears in The Outlook’s “Celebrating Charity” special edition magazine.