Written by: Kim Casey, Orange County Department of Education
Early in my junior year of high school, I tentatively raised my hand to become project leader for a service-learning project. The project was vaguely described to me in less than two minutes by representatives of an environmental education and service group, Inside the Outdoors as “essentially creating scavenger hunts in local parks.”
My high school, Sage Hill School, has melded service-learning into school curriculum and has students partake in projects ranging from cleaning up local beaches to avocado gleaning. Determined to find a project I would be passionate about, I jumped at the chance to do something with the outdoors. Four other students joined me and, along with our faculty advisor, we began with no idea where our efforts would lead us as this project was far more elaborate than simply picking up trash or packing food into boxes. Almost two years later, NSI (Nature Scene Investigators) has blossomed into a program that has been implemented in 11 Orange County, California parks and is complete with guide books, rubbing posts, a website, and prizes. (http://www.getoutdoorsoc.com/nsi.php)
The project’s success is due to a number of factors. It was created in collaboration with many other groups like Orange County Parks; the Orange County Health Agency; Orange County Libraries; the Latino Health Access; Friends of Harbors, Beaches, and Parks; and REI. The ability to harness all these different groups’ help was instrumental.
Orange County (unbeknownst to many who only know of the area in context of shows like ‘The OC’) is home to great and diverse parks with the potential to be used as locations for fun family activities. The balance our small group of dedicated students possessed really played a big part in our success. We had a strong, effective group dynamic and the right combination of people with various talents, including public speaking and art.
Being involved in the development of this program from day one has been an incredibly gratifying experience and taught me valuable lessons of how the real world functions. Coordinating efforts between private and public groups gave me great insight into bureaucracy and how nonprofits and government agencies function. Previous service-learning projects I had been involved in had obvious service components but always left me questioning whether I had actually learned anything from the experience. This project proved very educational and at times left me feeling like I was gaining more from the project than what I was putting in.
The most important lesson I learned is the key to any project’s success – in service, business, or anything else – is passion about what you are doing and willingness to see the project through to success.