Written by the Learn and Serve – Michigan Team.
The Michigan Community Service Commission (MCSC) is currently celebrating the second annual Disability/Inclusion week. The MCSC strongly believes in the importance of making service a part of the lives of individuals with disabilities not just in Michigan. Our Learn and Serve – Michigan AmeriCorps*VISTA Ellen King was able to talk with the Director of the Chautauqua Learn and Serve Charter School, Cynthia McCauley in Panama City. Please read on to learn more about Cynthia and her program.
What has been your experience in engaging youth with disabilities in service-learning projects?
The service learning methodology-especially when it blends individuals of all abilities in service and learning for the greater good, has grown into a passion that is almost who I am. I see the world through the lens of service learning. As an example, one of our projects is serving food to the homeless and individuals with financial challenges. Students with challenges and older individuals with disabilities who have aged out of our Learn and Serve program learn a recipe, travel via public transit to a grocery store, purchase the ingredients, take it to the office-again, via public transit, all with the help of their non-disabled peers. But it occurred to me, how unfair this is to the homeless population, and I thought we must find a way for them to serve, too. So, the meal became a community meal where everyone was invited to join a crafts making session called "Community Pillars." The purpose of the session was to make items from discarded furniture to be sold for donations to support programs for homeless women and children. The power of the concept is so apparent in this project. Egos are being replenished. People are learning or re-learning work skills that they must have. Most important, all are feeling valued and know their lives have meaning. Our shared humanity is so energized by the process.
For more information about the Community Pillars project, click here: http://www.newsherald.com/articles/sbc-94537-homeless-making.html
How has service-learning impacted your students?
Individuals with disabilities have become empowered and independent beyond any one's belief. My daughter, Melissa, is a professor of educational psychology at Indiana University where she teaches special education topics. Since I have taught special education for forty years, she grew up knowing and working with my students. After I started the charter school to use only the service learning methodology, Melissa came to visit the school and said, "Mom, I don't know how to say this in a way that is not politically incorrect, but your students don't look "handicapped" anymore." I hadn't seen it until she said it. She was correct. Because our charter school is only for students with disabilities, our students are able to form true friendships with others who would otherwise never cross paths. My students have the power to make substantive, positive change in all facets of those involved-disabled to gifted-even in their appearance and the ways they carry themselves. This visible, external strength will help them later in life; they will have confidence to remain engaged in their communities and they will have the confidence to seek employment and convince an employer that they are an asset.
Do you have any good stories that would highlight successful service-learning projects with your students?
Our students teamed up with students from a high school in the area, Bay High School, to take a philosophy course overseen by Oxford University. Follow this link to a special video about the project: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-0wRrP9Zu0