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Tower Hill Nourishes Students with Service Learning

Published on 10/11/2021
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Jenn Ruebush
Community Outreach Coordinator

Multa Bene Facta — Many Things Done Well. The motto at Tower Hill School conveys their commitment to the whole person as well as the connection of an individual to their community. Their mission starts with, “Tower Hill is bound by an understanding that our students are expected to take an active part in school life and, later on, life in the adult world; to take chances within this caring community; to learn from their experiences; and then, to enrich the world in which they live.” Each division (Lower, Middle, and Upper) has a committed Community Service Coordinator. LCS has benefited from this emphasis on community service at Tower Hill and hopes to continue to expand the relationship between the two organizations.

As soon as you start talking with Andie Sarko, who has served as Tower Hill’s Interim Director of Community Service, you hear her passion about not just asking students to participate in a service project but helping them develop an understanding of the value of service. Sarko teaches history in the Middle School (grades 5 to 8) and is a certified mindfulness instructor, which clearly plays into her view of service. She tries to find ways to help even the youngest students consider the need, find the motivation, and feel the joy of doing something that impacts others.

“As Interim Director of Community Service, the pandemic gave me a platform to talk about hunger,” Sarko shares. “Even the youngest students could understand it in terms of job insecurity and income loss.” Generally, Upper School students (grades 9 to 12) have a fair amount of opportunities to volunteer as organizations appreciate teenagers. Sarko and others at the school strive to make issues relatable and solutions tangible to all students, noting that “our Lower School has a vibrant curriculum that supports service learning. Lower School students really benefit from in-person, hands-on service activities that make service learning more meaningful.”

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Mindfulness in Service

Sarko defines mindfulness as, “the act of paying attention in an intentional, non-reactive and curious way. The practice cultivates a variety of skills including attention control, non reactivity, and clarity of thinking (decision making).” In terms of community service, Sarko wants students to “be intentional about motivation and choices - starting with the why, how, who, and what.”

With COVID-19 affecting so many people in the country and our community, students and teachers talked about homelessness and joblessness a lot. In November, Tower Hill held their annual Hiller Harvest food drive. They had collection bins out for 2 to 3 weeks. After the initial interest waned, Sarko got videos of Alex Mazzei and others from LCS talking about the organization and the people they serve. “That,'' she said, “is better than me telling them second-hand.” Understanding the stories behind the need brings more meaning to what you do in response.

Rather than having MLK Day just be a day off, Tower Hill takes seriously the call to make it a day of service.  They held a community-wide food drive and made it a drive through, drop off event. Donors gave eagerly, Sarko recalls, “and it was overwhelmingly successful.” LCS can provide all we do because of events like this.

With the rise in need during the pandemic, Tower Hill decided to do still more. Young Friends in the Upper School, led by Riley Brinsfield (class of 2023), introduced a spring drive to the Middle School in an assembly. This time, they focused on high-need food items for the LCS pantry as well as the new Delaware Food Farmacy. Getting students involved in the whole process makes it more personal to them and gives them leadership experience.

In the Lower School, the community service coordinators chose a “Celebrations!” theme to draw in their students. They read stories and discussed the excitement of a birthday cake and singing the “Happy Birthday!” song. Sarko points out, “It’s not a necessity, but a birthday cake is fun and something that makes you feel good.” After focusing on the joy of celebrations, students collected cake, cookie, and brownie mixes as well as candles, sprinkles, and icing for the LCS Choice Pantry. Wants don’t disappear when someone struggles financially, but those are not items food pantries usually have. Still, "everyone deserves cake!"

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Giving with Intention

For the spring drive, Sarko led students to be mindful of what they donated instead of just pulling something from the shelf at home. She asked LCS, “What do you really need? What items are you low on? What are your high-need items?” and then shared a list of those things. She talked with students about intentionally gathering those items. “We looked at what food they received for Food Farmacy and how clients could use them together. Maybe donate a couple of bottles of pricier balsamic vinegar instead of more cans of beans so that a client can make a recipe that requires the vinegar.” 

Similarly, Sarko asked students to consider that “Need shouldn’t compromise your health.” Fresh produce or specialized food items often cost more. Financially-strapped individuals too often have to choose between healthier foods and paying a bill. As a result, some students who are gluten-free focused on providing gluten-free items. They also made a point of gathering sugar-free items. “That means so much more to the students. You can see the care in the choices they bring in.”

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Service Learning

Tower Hill has a service goal that students understand the importance of helping others so when they graduate they are invested in the larger community. Students have a 40 hour service requirement to graduate. Sarko is hopeful that students will have more in-person opportunities at sites such as LCS. Service learning includes having students identify needs, brainstorm ways to address them, and design solutions for sustainability and consistent service.

Rather than occasionally participating in a project like a food drive, service learning takes place over time and leads to in-depth understanding of issues and possible solutions. When they start young, students form relationships built on collaboration and develop an appreciation for an organization and its clients. The organization and students become familiar with each other’s spaces. 

Sarko hopes every student can discover how to share their individual passions in a way that helps others. Love biking? Connect with Urban Bike Project of Wilmington. Gardening your thing? Ask about how you can help at the Good Shepherd Garden.

Over the years, Tower Hill students have helped stock and sort food at our pantries. They have worked in the garden. We count on their food drives, and we invite them to our annual Walk/Run. Hopefully we can continue to grow our relationship in ways that benefit both LCS and Tower Hill students. We admire their dedication to service learning and thank them for their support!

If you or your organization would like to spearhead a food drive, please check out our Hosting a Food Drive page. Our food needs change from time to time, so before you begin your drive, please contact Jenn Williams at 302-654-8886, ext. 111.

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