Here’s Your Guide to Giving Back

By Melissa Sersland, January 7, 2019

For the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, incorporating a service-learning opportunity into its triennial youth gathering has been a natural fit.

“More and more often, kids are living and growing in faith through service,” says Molly Beck Dean, director of the ELCA Youth Gathering. “It’s an entry point for kids into the church.”

As a result, during the ELCA’s gathering this summer, more than 30,000 participants were assigned to hundreds of projects throughout Houston over three days. However, without months (or in the ELCA’S case, years) of planning and building relationships with the community, Beck Dean cautions that organizing large-scale service projects can be unsustainable or counterproductive. “We listen to our partners to learn what they really need,” Beck Dean says. “It’s not just dropping into a city doing what we think needs to be done. We spend years walking with partners in a city and then figure out how a busload of kids can contribute to their mission and their city.”

Do No Harm

Organizing a service project during a meeting or event seems like a win-win for planners, attendees and the host community. Participants feel good completing a project they believe helps others; groups get a chance to engage with the community; and everyone can share the good work of the organization and its participants on social media.

But, Beck Dean says, without proper planning, dialogue and conversations with the community, some service projects can do more harm than good. “People think ‘service’ and think we’re going to paint a fence or build a wall,” she says. “Sometimes, what our partners need is people to listen to someone’s stories and focus more on the learning part of service learning than the work part of it.”

When incorporating service-learning opportunities, planners and nonprofits are advised “to do their homework, get information and identify the need,” says Teresa Alfaro, CMP, senior meetings manager for Volunteers of America, a faith-based nonprofit.

Alfaro recently planned two service projects for a national conference for staff members of Volunteers of America. She worked with the area office to coordinate projects, which included assembling 2,500 hygiene kits and taking part in community beautification—both were projects the community already wanted to complete but lacked manpower to do so.

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