Helping Others, Helping Ourselves

By Lois Traub West, Director of Civic Engagement, and Noel Yee, Community Service Coordinator

“I think that it was really cool to do community service. I felt like I was actually doing something to help Philadelphia. It was fun too.” (Maria M.)

“It was fun because we got to socialize with our friends yet we were getting useful things done. It felt really nice knowing that we were helping the community.” (Sebastian P.)

“It felt good to know that even in the few hours we were at MANNA we helped many people.” (Mollie K.)

I saw lots of hard work. (Stephen B.)

Bingo! Student feedback can’t get any better than that when you have created a pilot service program that distributes forty-three eighth graders in three groups to one of three venues - one in North Philly, one in West Philly, and one in Fairmount - on four chilly mornings in early January. Some traveled to their sites by foot, others by the Market-Frankford Line, and others by yellow school bus.

This past summer and early fall, we met several times to discuss ways to expand service learning and civic engagement at TPS, beginning at the Middle School level. Our goal was to provide meaningful, hands-on, multiple-day service that gave students the opportunity to help others and, at the same time, learn about the vital role volunteers play in enabling nonprofits to meet their mission of helping many, many Philadelphians in need.

We were so fortunate that three organizations that depend enormously on volunteer help were eager to have our kids work with them: MANNA, Share, and CHOP’s Early Head Start Program.


MANNA, located in Fairmount,  provides meals to people who are at acute nutritional risk due to serious illness; MANNA believes that food is medicine and that nutrition plays a major role in recovery. Jody McIntosh, MANNA’s Manager of Community Engagement & Volunteer Services, shared that very few schools send students multiple times to do service. Says Jody, “MANNA’s mission is possible because of volunteers like the amazing students at TPS! It is so important to experience the act of selflessness. TPS students immersed themselves in learning about the power of food as medicine four times in a two-week period. They came in excited and proud to gear up in aprons and hairnets [to put] together over 1,000 meals during their shift. That kind of commitment resonates and truly shows them how they are part of the process of nourishing their neighbors.”

EIghth grader Isabel A. wrote, “The actual work was very rhythmic and was a process that was repeated over and over, which made it pretty calming and almost peaceful.” She added, “I was pretty excited to go back to MANNA [the second day].  It was really cool to make a full meal (omelets, pears, and hash browns) and actually see it come together.”


Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Early Head Start Program (EHS), located in West Philadelphia, provides quality early childhood learning experiences and family support services that enable low-income families with young children (newborn to age 3) to succeed as their children's first teachers.  Our students spent their first two days at EHS creating several large bulletin boards to provide important information for parents.

Violet J. “really liked how the staff explained to us what the early head start program does, and I got a good sense of their mission.” Naomi G. and Ethan Y. created a bulletin board on reading; Ethan followed that up with a poster welcoming families to EHS. The final two days of service were not as artistically creative; the students organized closets and sorted baby items, allowing staff to focus their attention on the families they serve.


Forklifts, pallet jacks, and conveyor belts, and lots and lots of cardboard greeted the students who did their service at Share Food Program in a huge North Philadelphia warehouse where emergency food relief is packaged and distributed to more than 500 food cupboards that serve low-income Philadelphia residents facing hunger.  The first morning of service was met with a certain amount of shock: “It was cold.” “It was noisy.” “It smelled like cardboard!”

By day two our volunteers were Share veterans. Says Katya H., “We used a conveyor belt, and each volunteer put a different type of food in every box. Some people were packers, re-fillers, cleaners, weighers, and tapers. I was in the packing group so I put food in the boxes coming down the belt. I really enjoyed working at Share today and had a lot of fun doing it.” Adds Tasneem A., “Poverty also doesn't just mean living on the street; it can be just making living wage.”


Our Share volunteers had a day off from their warehouse work, but service was the focus of their one day back at TPS.  Several classrooms - from preschool through 3rd grade - welcomed our eighth graders as helpers and as guest speakers who shared about their experiences as volunteers at Share.

Despite meeting a few kinks along the way, we are delighted with the way our January Service Days pilot program worked out. We met our initial goals, but more rewarding than that were the unexpected outcomes. Maya O. saw service as a means of community building, saying, “ I . . . really liked working with classmates in a way we hadn't ever before because of what we were trying to accomplish for others.” And Lucca F. said, “I want to go back to volunteer at MANNA with my family.”

Cultural studies teacher David D’Altorio, who worked alongside the kids at MANNA, reflected, “These service experiences, though occasionally difficult, gave our students the opportunity to grapple with larger issues of equity and need in our city and learn what their fellow Philadelphians are doing to help.”

We look forward to turning this successful pilot program into an established one – one that can be adapted for all of our Junior Unit and Middle School classrooms.