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The invaluable lessons of service

Published: November 7, 2016

For more than seven decades, Pacific Oaks College & Children’s School has fostered a culture of social justice through volunteerism and community service—extending its core values from the Pasadena community to as far as villages in South Africa.

When a catastrophic earthquake rocked the island of Haiti six years ago, killing more than 100,000 people and leaving even more homeless, a young girl in Suzanne Duarte-Jones’ preschool class at Pacific Oaks Children’s School joined millions around the world who wanted to do something to help.

The student had family in Haiti—aunts and uncles who were directly impacted by the catastrophe. Duarte-Jones, a master teacher who has been leading small volunteer projects for her 4- and 5-year-old students for nearly a decade, saw it as an opportunity to teach through service.

The children traced their hands on a large paper collage, creating artwork for a series of greeting cards that were sold to raise funds for Doctors Without Borders, a world-wide medical humanitarian organization founded in 1971. With 60 percent of Haiti’s health facilities destroyed and 10 percent of the medical staff killed, it became the largest emergency response in the organization’s history.

Service is as integral to Pacific Oaks’ core values as social justice, anti-bias curriculum, and a dedication to valuing every individual. And it carries forward from the Children’s School to the college classroom to communities around the globe.

Though the project raised only about $400, Duarte-Jones says every dollar mattered, and every child received a lesson that would lay a foundation for a life of service.

Fostering A Mission

“Even at that age, it’s important that they see themselves as having an impact on the world,” she adds. “We try to explain to our students that sometimes bad things happen to people and it’s our responsibility to help them however we can.”

Since its inception, Pacific Oaks College & Children’s School has fostered a mission to prepare culturally intelligent agents of change who serve diverse communities—whether it’s a preschooler in Duarte-Jones’ class contributing to a global relief effort, a future counselor working with underserved children in a California nonprofit, or a teacher working in the rural Singita Sabi Sand area of South Africa through the Teach With Africa program.

Service is as integral to Pacific Oaks’ core values as social justice, anti-bias curriculum, and a dedication to valuing every individual. And it carries forward from the Children’s School to the college classroom to communities around the globe.

“No one leaves Pacific Oaks the same way that they came,” says Marian Browning, a long-time senior adjunct faculty member and now director of academic development. “They seek opportunities to make a difference.”

The Art of Self-Experience

Brazilian educator and theorist Paulo Freire once said, “No one is fully formed; it is through self-experience in the world that we become what we are.”

For 70 years, this concept has shaped Pacific Oaks College’s groundbreaking experiential learning model—designed to show students that by learning to understand themselves, they can learn to change the world.

Often, this life-changing experiential learning includes an element of community service.

From sharing meals in the classroom to exchanging personal cultural experiences as part of the curriculum, she says her experience at Pacific Oaks shaped her views on how to be a better citizen in a global society.

With the help of Pacific Oaks connections, alumna Jennifer Marfia found one such meaningful learning experience. In addition to coaching human development students as part of the college’s mentoring program, she also serves on the board of an up-and-coming nonprofit organization that supports people in convalescent homes, including widows.

As Marfia explains, after the sudden loss of her father three years ago, her mother struggled financially and sought out community resources but was turned away.

“To provide services to those in similar situations and alleviate some of the stress they have while going through the grieving process is truly a community service,” says Marfia, who graduated in 2015 with the Santa Clara cohort.

“Deep down, we all have the same goals—to build a positive community and for people to get along and be successful together, instead of working against each other.”

From sharing meals in the classroom to exchanging personal cultural experiences as part of the curriculum, she says her experience at Pacific Oaks shaped her views on how to be a better citizen in a global society.

“When you have been introduced to this philosophy of understanding how to help others, you can then go out to the community and effectively influence other people,” she says.

Breaking Down Barriers

Pacific Oaks has a national reputation for breaking barriers and introducing progressive ideas about pedagogy and anti-bias curriculum. But in 2011, leaders from both the college and children’s school used service to elevate that reputation on a global scale—launching a pilot program designed to support South African preschools through the San Francisco nonprofit Teach With Africa.

While the importance of early childhood education had increased after the end of apartheid, the country was far from able to give its 5.1 million children the best start in life. The preschool teachers who were working at these small, impoverished schools were committed educators, but lacked formal training and often were paid with food and other necessities for life.

So in July 2011, Pacific Oaks College sent a delegation of early childhood experts and faculty to the rural Singita Sabi Sand area in South Africa to assess the needs of teachers in four preschools and conduct training that focused on how young children learn through play, environments, guidance, and curriculum.

A pilot program to “teach the teachers” was born.

Study Abroad Opportunity

Over the last five years, this partnership has grown and flourished as Pacific Oaks staff and faculty continued to build relationships with leaders in the area and organizations such as READ Educational Trust. But it wasn’t until last summer that the opportunity to serve children and teachers was opened to students.

Paula Swearingen says she was thrilled to become the first early childhood education student in Pacific Oaks history to go on a study abroad experience in South Africa.

The memories of those three weeks have stayed with Swearingen, and continue to influence her work today as a practicum mentor to early childhood education students at a Los Angeles-area community college.

For three weeks, she accompanied former dean Dr. Carol Rinkoff and faculty member Dr. Cary Larson- McKay to visit 11 schools located in Soweto, Kwa Thema township, Singita Sabi Sand, Hazyview, Kruger National Park, and Mpumalanga.

The schools were barren and poor, often with concrete floors and almost no school supplies. Sticks in the sand were used to teach lessons in writing. A lack of printed reading material meant relying more of storytelling, song, and dance.

“It was a life-changing experience,” says Swearingen, who graduated with a master’s degree in early childhood education in 2015. “Our goal was to go in there with a humble attitude and assist these teachers, with the understanding that we would learn experiences as they learned from us.”

The memories of those three weeks have stayed with Swearingen, and continue to influence her work today as a practicum mentor to early childhood education students at a Los Angeles-area community college.

“The teachers in South Africa work out of passion—not money,” she adds. “When you open up your doors to different cultures, and understand how culture influences the way children learn, you become a better educator.”

Agents of Change

Browning says that to continue this legacy of service at Pacific Oaks, faculty and college leaders need to continue to create more opportunities to give back.

“Students don’t need to wait to become agents of change,” she adds. “Through service, they can make an immediate impact.”

In addition to the ongoing Teach With Africa project and other partnerships with area nonprofits where students can serve and gain valuable hands-on practicum experience, Pacific Oaks College also hosts a campus-wide Community Day of Service every year.

Last July, the Pacific Oaks community took on another service project that has special meaning to the institution’s long history of inclusion—raising funds and supporting an athlete in the Special Olympic World Games.

“By organizing these opportunities, we promote engagement. When students see faculty and staff give back, it sets a great example.”

“At Pacific Oaks, we love to work together with different types of people and groups. We thought this was a great opportunity to showcase our cause and help those in need,” explains Assistant Director of Student Services Jacqueline Romero, who spearheaded the project to sponsor Australian equestrian rider Sara Cann to compete in the Los Angeles event.

Through email campaigns and other grassroots outreach on campus, the Pacific Oaks community contributed $800 to the $2,500 needed to support Cann. But it didn’t stop there. Marley Small, a Pacific Oaks student and president of the Pacific Oaks Student Government Association, says a whole crew showed up the day of the competition to cheer on Pacific Oaks’ Special Olympian.

“She was so excited to see us,” Small says. “It was really heartwarming.”

Like Browning, Romero says it’s imperative for Pacific Oaks to create even more opportunities where students can have these kinds of experiences.

“How do we expect our students to take initiative if we ourselves are not?” she asks. “By organizing these opportunities, we promote engagement. When students see faculty and staff give back, it sets a great example.”

Setting A Good Example

Back at Pacific Oaks Children’s School, Duarte-Jones continues to do just that—set examples and create opportunities for children to learn community service and advocacy at an early age.

A 4-year-old can’t change a law but they are able to speak up if a rule is unfair, she explains, adding: “It sets a tone for taking action when someone is being unfair to you or a friend. It’s important to set that lesson young so that they see themselves as effective in the world and in relation to other people.”

One year after Duarte-Jones’ 4-and 5-year-olds raised money for Doctors Without Borders, a natural disaster impacted her classroom once more.

It was another earthquake—this time in Japan.

The March 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami left millions without food, water, and clothing, including the aunts of Duarte-Jones’ young students. Recalling the success of the previous year’s fundraising, they identified Red Cross as a recipient of another card sale drive.

“The little girl said she wanted to create a card to sell that was pretty,’” says Duarte-Jones, explaining that “A Garden for Japan” cards were printed from a collage of classmates’ drawings of flowers and garden creatures.

More than $500 was raised for Red Cross that year, and the students learned another valuable lesson.

“The children were able to understand that one of their friend’s loved ones lived there and needed help,” adds Duarte-Jones. “What they are learning from these service projects is they can’t stop an earthquake—or find homes for every animal in a shelter—but that can collect food for the animals or send help to Haiti and Japan. Those are lessons they will take with them for a lifetime.”

Categories: Magazine Features