Sarah Bernstein, an AmeriCorps member with Wyman’s Teen Leadership and Teen Outreach Programs, reflects on the learning and growth she’s experienced throughout her year of service.
I have always been involved in community service, but as I helped to create community service learning (CSL) opportunities for teens all over St. Louis this past year I feel like I scratched the surface of how integrating CSL into the activities of youth can positively re-route their lives, hearts and minds.
This year, I’ve seen socially isolated teens connect with their communities through service and find a new and powerful sense of “home” in the neighborhoods they walk every day. I’ve seen teens who struggle with classroom-based tasks recover their sense of purpose and potential when they are given things to accomplish in the “real” world. I’ve also seen teens who wrestle with handling their anger and aggression find causes that needs fighting for and connect with the positive side of their inner fires. I’ve seen that community service learning unfailingly provides benefits for everyone involved in its expression.
Most recently I worked with the rising eighth graders in Wyman’s Teen Leadership Program on a project we called From the Acorns to the Oaks. This project was a two-part endeavor to create appreciation cards for residents of a local nursing home and to spark a creative dialogue between two very different generations.
During the first part of the project the teens worked together to come up with card designs that they thought nursing home residents would enjoy. They coordinated photo shoots with costumes and hand painted banners and used the final images on the front of their cards.
The second part of the project included a discussion to inspire what would be written inside of the cards. The teens discussed the relationships they had with the elderly, mentioning grandparents, neighbors, and people they knew through faith organizations. The responses and perspectives on the older generation ranged, from respect and love to discomfort and indifference. The facilitators and I let them know that all these responses were ok, normal even, as we challenged them to consider looking at this project through a wider scope.
We then asked them to contemplate their childhood experiences: their discussion touched on public housing projects, microwave ovens, equal voting rights, laptops, air conditioning and public transportation. We asked them to consider that all of these objects, policies, and ways-of-life they had been born into had been invented, pursued, or sustained by the generation that are now their elders, many of whom currently live in nursing homes.
After some thought, they agreed that whether or not they supported all the decisions made or projects carried out by their elders, a show of purposeful connection and empathy from one generation to another was a worthwhile thing. This decision led our teens to send over 50 cards to Hilltop Manor and Marymount Manor, two local nursing homes in Eureka.
I am very proud to be a part of this project as well as several others that took place during the Teen Leadership Program’s summer sessions. My AmeriCorps experience with the staff and teens of Wyman has been both potent and satisfying, and can be best understood through the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.” This is both true and representative of my time spent with Wyman. I want to thank everyone for this opportunity and for all of their contributions to a wonderful year of service.