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by Jackie Hesse and Christine McCartney
As students enter the halls of our school, they are greeted by two chalk boards with the words “Before I die…” at the top, inspired by the work of Candy Chang. Students often write about the places in the world they would like to visit and goals they would like to accomplish, from gaining fame and fortune to making the world a better place. Our program, Global to Local, grew out of our desire to help students empower themselves as change makers, especially because high school is a time when many teens feel disempowered. Less than three months away from our service learning trip to Ecuador, we invited students in our program to write new “Before I Die” statements.
Brendin: Before I die I want to know that I have done something to leave an impression upon the world.
Last August, we stood in the warm Ecuadorian sun and looked over the four days worth of murals we had just finished painting at a school near the capital city of Quito. Still holding our dripping paint brushes, we had a defining moment in our work towards building a meaningful global service learning program for our students. When we tried to articulate how our students, after engaging in a similar volunteer experience abroad, might use the knowledge and skills they gained to facilitate community impact projects in our own struggling city of Newburgh, New York, we were at a loss. Sure our students would see another culture and have an opportunity to engage with people whose perspective of the world was different from theirs. But as educators who often think about how to help our students feel empowered to create the positive change our city desperately needs, we saw a wide disconnect between painting murals and the leadership skills and vision we wanted our students to gain to be able to act as change agents when they return to Newburgh.
Liliana: Before I die I want to be someone’s role model and inspire them to do great things in life.
At this realization, we knew we needed a new plan. When our friend Karen suggested a quick trip to the other side of Quito to meet her friend at Casa Victoria, we had no idea that this two hour visit would alter the entire trajectory of our work. Alicia, the inspiring woman who runs this grassroots community organization, recognizes that the youth in the area in which Casa Victoria is located are oftentimes lacking the supports needed to develop into productive, honest and self-sufficient members of their community. In an effort to counteract this, she has slowly built a program at Casa Victoria that provides academic help, social support and hot meals to the youngest members of the local community of San Roque.
Cindy: Before I die, I want to succeed in helping communities from all over the world grow into safe and loving communities.
As we think about the future and what authentic service learning looks like, we wonder how bringing students to a place like Casa Victoria might provide a more powerful experience than something like painting murals. What impact will it have for our students to learn first-hand from the experience of seeing a woman who recognized that she could no longer wait around for her community to improve…she had to be the change herself? How might it change how they envision themselves and their roles in the city of Newburgh? These questions represent a changed mindset for us as educators- a mindset that drives us as we work with students to dream this program into being; our most crucial work with students must happen beyond the walls of our classroom. Yes, our students see their degrees as the foundation of success for their futures, but it is also clear they now recognize education as an avenue to learn about themselves and the world.
We are excited as we look forward to the fall, when our students will brainstorm together which local issues they hope to address through their Community Impact Projects. They will form partnerships with local organizations, and step into leadership roles that they may never have imagined for themselves. We don’t know exactly what to expect, but we know that our students have both the potential and the desire to make their community a better place.
Maribel: Before I die I want to help others to achieve their goals.
Thanks to the generosity of FLYTE and Nomadic Matt, on June 24th, twenty Excelsior students and staff members will be boarding a plane, beginning what promises to be an amazing adventure. Because of our partnership with FLYTE and its dedicated staff, our students will be able to travel, some of them for the first time, to a foreign place to see an inspiring example of grassroots community organizing. We will carry with us a desire to learn from and with the staff at Casa Victoria. We will leave behind robots and tablets, a new outdoor learning center, and books for Casa Victoria’s library. We will return to the United States as changed people.
Elise: Before I die, I want the world to be as good as I thought it was when I was younger. When we spread love and happiness in different parts of the world and share ideas and skills, the world can be better.