The Pursuit of Happiness: Students Give Back to Community

Sarah Partin is a second year National Teaching Fellow in East Palo Alto, California.

When my student, Andy, told his fellow classmates that his family goes to the Ecumenical Hunger Program (EHP) regularly to get food and clothing, no one made fun of him. In fact, the whole class was excited about our field trip to EHP and the chance to give back to members of their own community in East Palo Alto. As part of their Citizen Schools “apprenticeship” class, The Pursuit of Happiness, led by Liza Smith of Youth Community Services, students are focusing on alleviating hunger and homelessness in our area. Especially now, during the holiday season, the students are learning about the impact and importance of giving to those need.

20131010_163301We arrived at EHP with only 20 minutes left before closing time, and most people were beginning to close up. A woman named Suliana, who runs the food pantry, agreed to direct the students in organizing the food pantry.  In a 20 minute fury, our students took directions, immediately did their jobs, said please and thank you, then asked for more work.

Before we knew it, 5:00 came around and it was time to leave. As we got ready to take the students back to school, Suliana called everyone to attention. The group stood around her in a semi-circle and looked attentively as she got a little teary eyed.  She told the students that she'd worked with student volunteers of all ages, and that at first she was very hesitant to work with such a large group today. But, of all the groups she’d worked with, none had been so productive and so polite as we had been.

She thanked the students "from the bottom of her heart,” several times and said that she had never seen such a hard working and kind group of young people. As she spoke, our students and our volunteers were beaming from ear to ear. She told us that the way we worked truly inspired her and that what we did in just 20 minutes was more than what had been done in the pantry the whole day.

20131205_170408During our reflection later that day, the students felt very good about the work that they had done and celebrated each other for their leadership. Each week, two students are selected for the “Giver of the Week” award and, during the reflection, students waited patiently for Liza and me to decide who would receive this special week’s prize. There are always two prizes, one for the giver and one for the giver to give to someone else. After a very difficult deliberation, we announced that Caleb, Andy's best friend, had won the prize. At this point, Caleb chimed in and said, "It was Andy who you should have chosen because he showed leadership and teamwork today and I am proud of him."  With that, Caleb handed Andy the second gift card and the entire class cheered for the both of them.

As a second year Teaching Fellow, I can say that this apprenticeship has been a truly transformative experience, not only for my students, but also for myself, my Citizen Teacher, and for any community members that were impacted by these students.  Every time we meet for class, I am amazed by the students' warm-heartedness and eagerness to give back.  I am so proud of them, but even more so, they are proud of themselves.  In our wrap-up reflection, students repeatedly told me and the rest of the class how much they will miss our apprenticeship.  In fact, in their closing remarks, each student was required to tell the class what their "dream apprenticeship" would be--some students said art or baseball or survival skills, but several said that all they wanted was another Pursuit of Happiness.