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At Your Service

[whitespace] Steve Geiger World on a string: Former Cardinal Newman student Steve Geiger focused on music education as his community service project.

MICHAEL AMSLER


Can kindness and compassion be taught?

By David Templeton

LAST SPRING, had you asked any of the seniors at Santa Rosa's Cardinal Newman High School, they'd have told you--many of them, anyway--that the recently established "senior works projects" were a bad, bad idea.

The projects--set in motion three years ago by the highly rated all-male parochial school and its all-female counterpart, Ursuline High--require seniors to develop or create a community service program. Students must establish recycling programs at school, for instance, or set up horse-riding classes for disabled children, and see the projects through while volunteering a minimum number of hours and keeping a careful record of how the work proceeds throughout the school year.

A major part of their final grade--equal to that of final exams--the senior works projects are mandatory.

"I work part-time," whispers one senior from Ursuline, requesting that her name not be used. "I study. This isn't an easy school to begin with, homework-wise, and I'm getting ready for finals. I'm filling out applications for college. On top of all that, I have to go out and spend time teaching kindergartners to color? I have no time to breathe.

"It's awful. I hate it."

An impromptu survey--"Raise your hands if you hate it"--of 45 students reveals that nearly all of them agree with this hardworking student's viewpoint, though what high schooler on Earth would ever say they welcomed additional work?

Nevertheless, the issue of "mandatory volunteerism"--a delightfully oxymoronic phrase--is clearly a hot one, and not only at Cardinal Newman/Ursaline, where students of all grade levels have long been required to perform an hour of community service each week. Such mandates have long been de rigueur in religious and private schools.

In recent years, public schools have jumped on mandatory volunteerism as well, requiring students to turn in logbooks showing hours spent out in the community, rebuilding trails, or serving food at a homeless shelter. The hours must be verified by an adult supervisor.

According to a December 1997 U.S. News and World Report survey, one fifth of all schools in the country require their students to commit time to community service.

Sonoma County has numerous schools with such programs, but none with the scope and inventiveness of the program at Cardinal Newman--modeled after a program in Oregon. Cardinal Newman students are not merely asked to work at some existing charitable program; they are obligated to invent their own programs, to submit plans to a review board, to document their experiences, and ultimately, during one wild, ceremonious week in May, to make a public presentation of their accomplishments.

This, according to Julia Jennings, admissions director for Ursuline, is when their work pays off in terms of their overall grade as well as personally. "We've heard the mumblings. We know of the complaints," she admits. "And not every student is going to get anything out of this program, but most of them do. It's at the end of the school year, when they are putting it all together and thinking about their presentations, that they realize what it's been for.

"What they learn is that, as one person, they can make a difference in the world. That's something I didn't have the opportunity to learn at a young age.

"They learn that the more they become involved in their community, the better their community becomes."

AS PROMISED, the May senior-service presentations are nothing short of a major event. Students, teachers, parents, and invited guests from the community all pack the hallways, buzzing about presentations they've just seen, furtively practicing their speeches off in corners, jockeying their visual aids through the doorways, patting each other on the back, and comparing schedules to decide which upcoming presentations are the real must-sees.

One of these is David Opperman's presentation on AIDS awareness. Opperman, inspired by the AIDS-related death of a friend, attempted a fundraising variety show for the Ryan White Foundation, but, overburdened by the enormousness of his project, scaled it back.

He ended up visiting local junior high schools to preach safe sex.

"I needed to tell teens and young adults that they can put a stop to this," he explains, not hiding his emotion as he tells of his friend's illness. Displaying a series of charts, he states that "70 percent of all high school students have had sex; half don't use a condom." Toward the end of the 15-minute show, he answers an audience member's question about his feelings, now that he had completed his assignment.

"Well, when I first heard about the senior-service projects, I thought it would be a pain in the butt," Opperman confesses. "I thought it would be a waste of my time, but I have to admit that I've learned a lot about myself through this project. It's like a great gift I didn't expect to get. Because of what I've learned and seen, I don't take life for granted anymore." He ends the presentation with the loud exhortation, "It doesn't matter whom you love, but that you love." He is greeted with a loud ovation.

Later, Anthony Delime, who helped develop a fourth-grade P.E. program at nearby St. Rose Elementary School, is noticeably nervous, but grows confident as he shows photos of the kids doing calisthenics and playing ball.

"I know I can't change the physical fitness of kids throughout the world," he says, "but I think I can change the lives of this one group of kids. Actually, I wish I could continue doing this," he beams. "For the first time I see myself as a teacher. I haven't decided exactly what I'm going to be studying in college, but now I know that it will involve teaching kids."

A similar sentiment is expressed by Corrie VanDenakker, who spent the year feeding endangered animals as a volunteer at Safari West, Santa Rosa's private nature preserve.

"I'll never forget this experience," she exclaims, her eyes filling with tears as she lists the animals--giraffes, porcupines, lemurs--that she was able to meet face to face on a daily basis. "I'll remember it for the rest of my life."

"This," whispers Jennings, standing at the back of the room as VanDenakker basks in the applause of her peers, "is my favorite part. After all the work and the tears, to see the students that have truly changed and grown, that have learned about themselves and how important they are to the big world they're about to enter. That's what these projects are all about."

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From the August 13-19, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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