Service Learning at ISB: The Parent Perspective

One of the most fulfilling experiences for a parent is seeing their child create a positive impact on the world outside of school. For some students, becoming an active member of their community is a learning process that requires them to overcome their own fears, doubts and preconceptions of society.

Through the extensive Service Learning programme offered at ISB, many parents have seen their children experience the joy that only giving back to others can give us – but not without the presence of a challenge or two. Rajaa Abu-Haya, ISB parent, describes how participating in CAS activities in the High School has changed the way in which her son views his life and the opportunities he has been given.

“After volunteering with Poverello and Fedasil Rixensart, where he interacted with those less fortunate than him, he was truly able to recognize how privileged he is. The refugees and the homeless gave him an opportunity to listen to their incredible stories. It was undeniably challenging at first, mostly because no one teaches you how to have these kinds of conversations. He felt hugely disconnected from them, because the things that these people had experienced, he could barely imagine living through himself. But the more he went, the more he felt a desire for change, for looking at the world through a different lens. What really struck him was realizing how privileged he is, that he’s the one in a position to be able to help others, rather than being the one struggling to make ends meet. “

The truth is that most students will not have had any real experience working in the wider community by the time they reach the Middle School or the High School. It is for this reason that having the right kinds of conversations about the value of Service Learning is an important starting point for many young adults. Michelle Brown, ISB High School Service Learning/CAS Coordinator, speaks to her students about the importance of standing out as a person, and not just as a student, when applying for the colleges they hope to attend. But more importantly, she witnesses the growth that many students go through when they actively participate in their community.

“The first time that students go out into the community they can be quite shy and might not be interacting very much. Feeling that unease at the beginning is normal. Going into a new project is a bit like having a first day at a new school. If a student works with refugees, he or she might come back and say that the refugees didn’t talk to them much. It is then that we ask the student whether they spoke to the refugees first. We explain to him or her that on the first day of school, the new kid isn’t often the first one to speak. But the more the students participate in these projects, the more comfortable they start to feel. When you see them in 11th or 12th grade, you see a world of difference.”

Choosing the right project is, of course, a crucial first step and an important part of the conversation between the student and the school. At ISB, High School students are given the opportunity to choose the project that they would like to be involved in until they graduate. They are not, however, restricted to participating in just one area. In a typical school year, students are required to have at least fifteen CAS experiences, and can choose from a range of different options – from volunteering with the elderly and the homeless, to working at an animal sanctuary or with underprivileged children. The question students need to ask themselves, Michelle says, is not only what they are passionate about, but also what they would like to study and where they might hope to work in the future. She explains that if approached with the right mindset, these experiences can open doors to deeper reflections, new projects, and ideas that can change the world.

“If you are thinking of going into medicine, then perhaps working with the elderly might give you a good first glimpse into caring for older people. Others might find more value in working with the homeless. If a student isn’t happy with a project that they’re involved in, then a discussion will take place with that student to find out what they are finding difficult and what they would like to do instead. Students are also pushed to think beyond what they see and do and to ask themselves questions such as, “why are these people homeless?” We also have discussions with them around the value of long-term support. Preparing meals for the homeless is great and it certainly helps them, but these are not long-term solutions and there are deeper reflections to be made.”

ISB parent Susanne Lau adds how important it is for children to participate in as many of these activities as possible, explaining how these opportunities have helped her daughter appreciate the value of giving back.

“My daughter has helped out at an animal sanctuary, worked with kindergarten students, cooked meals and taken part in other volunteering projects. At the beginning, she did not fully grasp the importance of her contribution to her surrounding community. But as time went on, she really began to embrace these amazing opportunities. She witnessed the positive impact that her work could have on other people, and how a simple gesture of kindness could bring a smile to a child’s face. I believe that the CAS programme at ISB is integral to the development of students who, in the near future, will become contributing citizens of a larger world.”

ISB works with twenty-five base organizations on a regular basis but has ties with several others across Brussels as well. Over the years, a solid partnership has formed with these special places. Although this year every project involving some form of interaction was forced to stop, our school was still able to offer its support from a distance. At Christmas, 350 toys were donated to underprivileged children across Brussels. Our students created hand-made holiday cards for the elderly and knitted beautiful scarves to help them stay warm through the winter months. Supported by their families and Michelle Brown, they continue to prepare and distribute hundreds of muffins and sandwiches to the homeless in Brussels each week.

With the pandemic adding a number of logistical challenges to the organisation of these events, the ISB Family Association stepped forward to lend a hand wherever possible. For our toy drive at the end of last year, they donated numerous toys and bought new ones for more children, drove to the families’ homes to drop them off and coordinated a way for them to be distributed to ISB. In collaboration with Michelle Brown, they provide families with the recipes for the meals that we donate to the homeless each week, coordinate the distribution of the plastic containers used to package them and help out with so much more. It is this joint effort of compassion and support that continues to make ISB such a special community in which to learn and grow. ISB parent Rajaa Abu-Haya concludes by saying that all the different CAS activities that her son is involved in are helping to shape him into the man that he will become.

“These activities really made his day, and every time he went to a refugee camp, he felt that it was a day well spent. For him, helping others in different ways has become a way of living and a part of his personality, of who he is.”

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