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Learning to serve

A new community education program is getting Farmington youth more involved in their community this summer.

Middle school students are participating in Farmington Community Education's Summer of Service program. This is first time the school district has offered it. Through two sessions, students have helped a variety of organizations both locally and around the metro area, including Last Hope Animal Shelter, the Farmington food shelf and a homeless shelter.

"It's been really good" seventh grader Jordan DeCroock said. "I feel like I'm helpful."

Summer of Service is designed to let students make a difference without telling them what to do. Students decide on their own in what ways they could help out the community, come up with action plans and followed through.

The program was created to address the needs of the community, according to Gabe Sandvik, the site supervisor for the program. Community education tried doing some non-school day activities last year that didn't have a great turn-out, prompting plans for a summer program.

"We just figured we'd give summer a try and see what happened," Sandvik said. "Here we are."

The program is divided into four sessions, each with its own goal. It costs $150 for students to participate in one session, which is cheaper than what other school districts charge for similar programs according to Sandvik. The first session was geared toward community or school projects, where the students advertised for various organizations around town.

The second session involved a state service project. In the current session, students will create a project to address a national need. The fourth and final session will be centered on a global issue.

In the first session, students helped advertise for the Farmington food shelf by making fliers and posting them in locations around town. They also did research on local animal shelters, including Last Hope, a non-profit organization that provides foster care for abandoned pets until they are adopted.

After a visit from a Last Hope spokesperson, the students made presentations for elementary students involved in Kid Connection, another community education program. Along the way, the Summer of Service students adopted Middle Creek Park and cleaned it, visited Trinity Care Center nursing home for the day and inventoried lost and found clothes collected from schools across the district to be used for families in need in the fall.

Students spent much of the second session gathering necessities for a food session. They visited the Salvation Army's Harbor Light homeless shelter in Minneapolis, and decided to hold a fundraiser for the shelter after hearing from the homeless first hand.

Armed with bags and fliers, the students went door to door in the neighborhood near Farmington Middle School East. They asked residents to donate money and supplies for personal hygiene kits. The students asked residents to put whatever items they could spare into the bags they gave residents, and then picked them up. They also offered to mow lawns for a minimum donation of $10. Only one person wanted their lawn mowed, and donated $30 to the SOS. In total, SOS students received over 150 items.

On the way to delivering the kits to Harbor Light, students stopped by a dollar store to use the money they had collected to purchase more hygiene items.

"I've actually been surprised at how much stuff we've accomplished," Sandvik said.

Aside from organizing homeless shelter fundraisers, SOS students researched puppy mills and wrote a letter to this newspaper encouraging residents to adopt pets from local shelters and the Minnesota Humane Society.

One of the best parts of the program is the fact students plan and execute all of the activities themselves. When the SOS visited the Harbor Light homeless shelter, they had to call and schedule a time on their own, as well as find a suitable mode of transportation there, according to Sandvik. The students took the light rail.

"We want them to do most of it," Sandvik said. "We're just kind of here to keep them focused, keep them in the right direction."

It has paid off. Based on the amount of success the students have had organizing their own projects, Sandvik said the program will most likely be offered next summer as well. The lessons they take away are things they won't necessarily learn in classrooms.

After the students had visited the homeless shelter, the SOS staff talked to them about their experiences. Sandvik said the reality of the homeless shelter helped to dispel a few perceptions about what downtown Minneapolis was like. The first time the students were at the homeless shelter, they asked very few questions. When they returned with toiletries, they seemed much more comfortable.

SOS students took a tour of the Minnesota Humane Society after researching puppy mills, and at times it appeared the students knew more than the Humane Society spokesperson about adoption laws and other things, according to Sandvik.

It's experiences like those organizers hope kids will take away from their Summer of Service.

"That's all we wanna do is just get them thinking about the bigger picture, and how it affects everyone," Sandvik said. "We want them to learn when they don't think they're learning."

Anna Rutz, a sixth grader, said she learned a lot from the program.

"I've learned that you can help make a difference," she said.