Students Focus on Community Engagement Through Breaks With Impact

Volunteer Alexandria engages students in service learning over the summer break. The program, called Breaks With Impact (BWI), is for middle and high school students and focuses on community engagement.

Youth volunteers bagged 268 bags of groceries at the ALIVE! food warehouse while learning about food insecurity in Alexandria.
(Photos courtesy of Volunteer Alexandria)

By Cordell Fields, Volunteer & Database Coordinator

Alexandria, VA – The days of doing something easy for community service and then going home are long gone. Schools and nonprofits are moving to a service-learning model for students. Service learning incorporates personal reflection, the voices of youth, and meaningful volunteer work. And it can improve the experiences and outcomes for the students involved.

Volunteer Alexandria engages students in service learning over the summer break. The program, called Breaks With Impact (BWI), is for middle and high school students and focuses on community engagement. BWI participants learn about social issues facing Alexandrians and how nonprofits and the City address these issues while earning service hours.

These quality out-of-school programs allow students to learn about human services in Alexandria, from hunger to mental health, and what’s being done in the environmental arena, where stray animals live, and much more. The program is for all students, including public and private schools. While we focus on Alexandria, our neighbors in Fairfax County and Arlington are welcome to join BWI.

One student said she “enjoyed being able to make a direct and positive impact on the community. I think this experience was very rewarding, and I learned a lot.”

On April 1, student volunteers at the ALIVE! food warehouse bagged groceries for an upcoming food distribution.

A typical day starts with an overview of the issue followed by a service project. Activities include cleaning a local park or sorting items at a food pantry. When service learning is added, students learn how litter impacts the environment or how to count and measure items, and the impact their work has on hunger in the community. A student who volunteered at a food pantry found the most impact, she said, “when we handed out sandwiches. I loved this because we got to see the results of our work in real time.”

At the end of their volunteer work, students complete a guided reflection on their experiences. BWI participants collect facts, process what they did, evaluate, and formulate the next steps in addressing an issue. Through service learning, students strengthen and apply what they learned in school and begin to think critically about the world around them. The National Youth Leadership Council concluded that students who completed service learning achieved positive civic outcomes in adulthood.

Students who create their own service projects are more vested in the outcomes and process. ASCEND is a program formed and led by students Ian McDonough and Fatima Eldaweh, who dedicate their time to fighting climate change and educating the community. ASCEND is a part of Volunteer Alexandria that focuses on informing, educating, encouraging, and recruiting volunteers to help with our many initiatives around the city. “We want to be able to give back to the community by cleaning it up and building a city of people who care about the environment,” they said. ASCEND has hosted four park clean-ups around the city, a recycling project, and secured a partnership with a recycling company since fall 2020.

Students cleaned up and removed invasive species with the National Park Service on March 31.

Service learning benefits young people and organizations by increasing engagement with their communities. Better personal outcomes are associated with individuals who participate in service learning, including improved self-esteem, social skills, and civic participation. It also improves volunteer retention with organizations. Service learning can be a positive step in moving Alexandria forward!

To find out more about the upcoming summer program, visit www.VolunteerAlexandria.org/BWI or email Cordell at [email protected]

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