Serving others is a way of life at Montana’s Missoula Catholic Schools.
In kindergarten, students collect food during the week and help to sort it at a local food bank. Fourth-graders are hosting a sock drive to clothe area homeless. Others are helping the elderly with landscaping, repainting community signs, and clearing overgrown trails.
“They love doing stuff to help people in the community outside the school,” teacher Katie Wardsiani told the Missoulian, “to be part of that makes my heart feel so big.”
The tradition of serving the community is a bedrock of Catholic social teachings that dates back decades at Missoula Catholic Schools, which has modernized the practice to focus on personal development and structure for students to give back.
All students at Loyola Sacred Heart high school, for example, must complete a quota of community-service hours each year with a goal of working toward something bigger. By graduation, each student is expected to design, plan, and implement their own 40-hour “Senior Vision Project” aimed at improving the quality of life for others.
Senior adviser and teacher Dave Klein told the Missoulian, charity work wasn’t as structured when he attended Catholic schools, but the intent is for students to take ownership of their work and continue on after high school.
“It was more of a compulsory thing. There wasn’t an ownership. It was an obligation you did then, but didn’t do after that. It was something you checked off,” Klein said of past practices. “We hope our students will own it, feel empowered by it, feel proud of it.”
That seemed to be the situation with 17-year-old Luke Bledsoe, who cleared brush and branches along miles of the Lewis and Clark Trail in Idaho to make it more accessible.
“My goal was to try to let elderly people see the beautiful spots,” Bledsoe said, adding that his 85-year-old grandfather made the trek with him after he cleared out the overgrown trails. “He had been a district ranger and had probably never seen those spots before because it was so thick and hard to trudge through.”
Another senior, Kylie Esh, organized a workshop for elementary students to explore conscience. Speakers attended to help youngsters contemplate the role of silence in reconciliation, decision-making, and other topics of morality and faith.
“I wanted to better the faith of these kids,” Esh said. “A lot of schools do a senior project, but it’s about a topic. Giving back to the community is important.”
Other students like 17-year-old Kenna Guenther built on their previous service work for their Senior Vision Project. Guenther spent the summer helping elderly Missoula residents with landscaping and other chores, and the experience inspired her to help them document their family trees and offer wisdom to their grandchildren.
“It’s personal. It just is a lot more meaningful,” Guenther said of her work with the elderly. “They were happy and very positive people. It made me think about what I want to be like when I’m older.”
Guenther said the idea for her senior project stemmed from similarities she shared with those she helped over the summer, the Missoulian reports.
“I live really far from my family and they live really far from their families, so I’m going to interview them and make a family tree. And just anything they want their grandkids to know about them and life,” she said. “I’ll make it into a nice book for them around Christmas time.”
Catholic Schools researcher Carol Ann MacGregor presented the report Varieties of Moral Formation: Selected Preliminary Findings from a Landmark Research Study to the U.S. Department of Non-Public Education in 2016, which pointed out how ongoing disagreement among Catholic educators centers on whether compulsory community service as an element of schooling undermines its volunteer nature.
“Some (teachers) suggested that it would not be ‘service’ or ‘volunteering’ if it were required, while others argued that students needed the added structure,” MacGregor wrote.
Other schools have the same vision for formative community service.
The “portrait of a graduate” prepared by the Jesuit Schools Network provides a helpful starting place for educators to consider how community service—whether compulsory, voluntary, or some combination—can cultivate the strong character virtues students will carry with them throughout their lives.