Some of my favorite stories about the Holton community’s experience during the pandemic have been those featuring girls and families helping others during this difficult time: PUNCH organizing mask-making for hospital workers; a sixth grader making “grab-and-go” bags for essential workers; seniors who have committed to doing something nice for someone every day. This week, I asked students to send me other examples. Many girls have found ways to thank essential workers such as mail carriers, sanitation workers, and grocery store staff; others have baked for neighbors, particularly the elderly. One family has taken unclaimed Meals on Wheels meals and given them to teachers for students who are experiencing food scarcity. Another family has continued their longstanding commitment to feed the homeless by creating bagged meals. A ninth grader is doing grocery shopping for senior citizens and is hoping to organize a team of other teenagers to join her.
There is no doubt that this has been and continues to be a trying time. It’s easy to feel anxious about the state of the world. It’s also easy to feel sorry for ourselves, isolated with our families, unable to go out or to visit friends, and missing the School community, especially all the end-of-year traditions. Helping others–volunteering our time and giving of our resources–offers one of the best antidotes to these negative emotions. It won’t eliminate the many challenges and frustrations we are confronting now, but, by making us look outward rather than inward, it redirects our attention. Indeed, research shows that volunteering has many emotional and physical benefits. People who volunteer are happier, have a stronger sense of self-worth, and are healthier–they even live longer. Service also helps foster empathy; it can nurture a commitment to social justice and a sense of civic responsibility.
Young people who dedicate themselves to longer-term service projects can also gain important life skills. This has been the experience of our students who participated in the Schoolyard Ventures Social Innovators Program offered to interested Upper School students this past winter. This program aims to help students develop an “entrepreneurial mindset—a problem-solving framework fueled by creativity and grit.” They do this by developing a way to address a real-life issue, in the process, as program director Rich Sedmak explains, “creating value for themselves and for others.” While they may create something lasting, the most important outcomes come in the form of increased confidence, resilience, and becoming better problem solvers.
We had 47 students accepted into the program, and their projects, not surprisingly, address a wide range of issues, often with a personal connection. For example, a tenth grader who suffers from juvenile arthritis worked with the Arthritis Association to better publicize their resources to young people, an audience they had largely ignored despite having much to offer this population. This student is actively involved with the organization now, helping them to connect with juvenile arthritis patients–a perfect example of adding value for herself and for others.
A ninth-grade swimmer is concerned about female athletes feeling uncomfortable with male coaches, a problem she found to be particularly prevalent among swimmers. This student started holding training sessions for fellow female swimmers using videos created by Safe Sport, a national organization committed to making sports safe by eliminating all forms of abuse. She contacted people at USA Swimming and is now serving on the Potomac Valley Safe Sport Committee. She published an article about her work on the prestigious swimming website Swim Swam.
Many girls focused on mental health issues, including a junior interested in addressing the prevalence of stress, anxiety, and depression among teens. Her research led her to the positive impact of relationships on our mental health. She has created a national holiday called “Heyday” to take place on International Friendship Day (July 30). She wants to encourage people to reach out to a friend on that day and say “hey.” She has created an Instagram account (@heydayholiday) and looks forward to recruiting student ambassadors to help spread the word about the power of personal relationships.
At least three projects focused on the environment, generally aimed at raising awareness or creating ways for people to take action. A junior addressed her peers’ sense of powerlessness regarding the environment through a texting service. Each morning, she texts a challenge, such as taking just a five-minute shower; at the end of the day, she sends another text explaining the impact, in this case, reducing water usage by 2.1 gallons per minute. She wants people to understand that “we can all have a big impact through small changes.”
You also may have seen the news story about the sophomore who wanted to help senior citizens learn how to use technology, such as Skype, to connect with family, a project that proved especially timely.
While the girls’ projects were inspiring, I was especially interested in what they learned. To accomplish their goals, they had to reach out to people they didn’t know, often adults who lead organizations. This can be intimidating. Sometimes they encountered rejection and had to move beyond it. Often, they found people eager to support their efforts. As one girl who hopes to increase awareness about autism explained, “I learned that people who are very successful still care about helping people who are just starting out and seeking guidance, and sending cold emails is easy and has the potential to provide you with many opportunities.” In the process, students learned how to approach adults, how to cold call, and how to follow up professionally.
As they developed their projects, particularly their target markets, they often had to change course. Part of that involved learning how to listen and apply what they heard. As a junior interested in supporting microgreens farmers observed, “It is more important to interview and listen to your target market than anything else. You may think you have a great idea, but if it is not what the target market wants, the idea won't be successful.” This put a premium on flexibility, but the most important quality it fostered is empathy. Developing greater empathy alone would make the program worth the experience, but students also practiced risk-taking and perseverance, and gained confidence. A ninth grader, whose concern about mass incarceration led her to create a job-placement service for ex-offenders, made the following observation:
A valuable lesson I have learned is that risk taking is a crucial skill and that an immense amount of learning takes place while engaging in activities that are outside of my comfort zone… I have been able to use [this lesson] in other settings such as in the classroom and in athletics. I have found that I have pushed myself more while trying new activities that I am uncomfortable with at first.
Interestingly, when I asked the director of the program what, if anything, stood out about the Holton girls, he described them as having “social courage”; as he explained, “They are good at pushing through their fear to reach out to potential partners and interviewees.” He also told me, “There…seems to be a positive culture of collaboration and camaraderie.” I am incredibly proud that was the culture they conveyed.
As we continue to help our girls navigate this challenging time, I would encourage them to find ways to address the issues they see around them, whether an immediate problem such as helping senior citizens get groceries or a more overarching social challenge. They will grow in all kinds of ways from the experience, while also helping to make the world a better place. If they are interested in taking it to the level of social innovation, I’m excited to report that Schoolyard Ventures is offering a summer session, again for Holton Upper Schoolers. (US Director Chris Lynch reached out to students in grades 9-11 directly this week with more information.) In the meantime, please check out the extensive resources for community engagement on Holton’s website.