Creating Eye-Opening Experiences for Students

By Karen Bil Ratzlaff, Staff Writer

St. Julie Billiart’s words still ring true today, “Our charity must not be limited by the love we have for one another. It must make our hearts wide as the world.” The intent behind these words is evident in the seven Hallmarks or values that define Notre Dame schools, including the commitment to community service.

At Moreland Notre Dame (MND) School, Principal Crissy Grul wanted to take the school’s community service program a step further and give older students the benefit of service learning. Enter Sister Virginia Unger. A teacher for decades, Sister sees her new job as coordinator of service learning at MND as “the perfect opportunity to teach children about helping those in need.” Sr. Virginia sought out others in the Notre Dame community who were running similar programs and found Jean Howe, who was then the coordinator at N.D. Elementary, Belmont. Sr. Virginia says, “Jean ran a great program. She shared all her best ideas with me.”

SoupKitchenThose very ideas got Sr. Virginia started and in short order the 7th and 8th graders at MND were serving lunch at Loaves and Fishes in Watsonville and visiting elders in a convalescent home. In particular, serving at the soup kitchen proves to be an eye-opening experience. Many of the students confess that they hadn’t known Watsonville even had a homeless population.

But there’s more to the program than “doing the stuff.” In service learning, students are also required to reflect on their service experiences. The reflection-action-reflection model is core to the program. The students write in their reflection journals and share their thoughts with one another. One week they write that many at the soup kitchen appear dirty, sick and lonely. Most look sad, but a few smile back. The women with young children particularly tug at the students’ hearts. Maybe for the first time the students realize how much they have.

While the 7th and 8th graders are part of the service learning program, all grades are involved in the Heart, Head & Hands program which has included gathering gently used and new winter clothing for the Pajara Valley Shelter and, this year, putting together 50 Easter baskets full of goodies for homeless children.

So while the students at Moreland Notre Dame School learn to read, do math and master the computer, they also learn to be thankful and generous, and discover that they love helping others in their community.