Creating Positive Change Through Service

Creating Positive Change Through Service

Last summer, many people found themselves living in relative isolation. We all lived our lives a little closer to home, struggling to find ways to stay connected while staying apart. 

Nevertheless, many of our students found a way to stay active in their communities and worlds by standing up against racial injustice and health care inequalities, and this magazine featured some of their stories last year. The needs of the world were clear, and students in our community sought to answer the calls of those who needed them the most despite the barriers.

Though the troubles of last summer have not left us and are very real for many of us, this summer, our students found ways to think beyond the immediate challenges and sought to work for and find solutions for the longstanding issues in our world. Though each of the following stories vary wildly, they each reflect how wide-ranging the impacts and interests in our community can be. These stories illustrate how our diverse stories can lead us to create a diversity of positive change in the world around us.

Learning to Serve and Reach for the Stars

Danielle Pascale ’23 has been inspired to think about the struggles of other young people in her community for quite some time. She told me, “I think the first really broad thing that piqued my interest for children who are experiencing financial and housing instability was a book that I read in fifth grade. It’s called “Runaway,” and it kind of gives a detailed account of this girl and her experience. Her parents both pass away and she becomes homeless. It really brought to light for me a lot of struggles that kids my own age have, that I didn’t even know about.” She went on to explain, “Since then, I knew that I wanted to do something, specifically with children facing financial and housing instability.”

But she experienced some challenges in finding ways to get involved. “It’s really difficult to volunteer hands-on with kids when you are a kid yourself.” She found other ways to get involved—clothing donations and gift packages—but nothing on the level of social impact she desired.

However, a chance to engage on that level came along when St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes offered the LearnServe Fellows program last year. LearnServe is an organization that seeks to instill the values and skills of social entrepreneurship in students living in the D.C. Metro Area, and the school has partnered with them since 2018 for our own Social Entrepreneurship program. Danielle said, “I felt that [the LearnServe Fellows Program] could maybe help me start something where I got to work hands-on, and perhaps my fellow students could work hands-on.” She said that the program gave structure to some of the ideas that she had been thinking and researching over the years.

Calli Dino ’24, Danielle Pascale ’23, and Gigi Smigel ’23 having a bake sale to raise funds for Reach for the Stars.

“You can never underestimate the impact that you can have as a person.”

– Danielle Pascale ’23

Specifically, LearnServe’s social entrepreneurship process helped Danielle understand the importance of hearing the voices of those we seek to serve. She reflected, “One of the things that really stuck with me was not just giving people what you think they need, but going out and talking to members of the community and really understanding their situation, and taking time to think about it. You’re not in their shoes and you have no clue what they’re going through.” The program pushed her to reach out to organizations, and eventually she started to work with one of the school’s community partners, Mother of Light Center. Mother of Light Center’s mission overlapped with Danielle’s vision to ameliorate financial and housing instability. Working with one of the organization’s directors, Matilde Alvarado, she was able to understand the type of program that would benefit the children that the organization serves.

This understanding and her research helped her to craft the goals of the program. She sought to “lessen the mental and physical impacts of child poverty and homelessness” through a program that “can be implemented in homeless shelters or community centers.” Primarily, she focused on yoga and meditation, team sports and exercise, and arts and crafts as the activities that would deliver these goals. Before starting the program, she pilot tested her activities at our own Lower School so that she could get a sense of how these activities could make a positive impact. This was part of the process of determining her “Minimum Viable Product,” a part of the LearnServe curricular process. She found that 75% of those participants who entered with negative emotions left the program with positive emotions. 

As she approached the launch of her program, Danielle recalled the nerves. Remembering the parent information session where she offered this program to the families that Mother of Light Center serves, she said, “It’s a very intimidating feeling to go up and stand in front of a group of adults that you don’t know.” She even had to present in English as Matilde translated her words into Spanish. At the same time, she remembers that the trust that the community had in Matilde and Mother of Light Center convinced people to sign their children up for her program. And so, with a startup cost of $230 and a cohort of fifteen students, Danielle launched her program at St. Rita’s Community Center on July 12. She called it Reach for the Stars.

Her program ended up being an overwhelming success as she managed a team of eight SSSAS students and two Alexandria City High School students to reach some of the social impact she’d dreamed of before. As she observed the program’s proceedings, she took note of the fact that the participants’ verbal English level did not seem to match their written English level, and so she added a reading component of the camp. In the end, all of the parents surveyed afterwards reported that the program helped their children relax, have fun, and gain skills that would be useful for the next school year, and all of the parents said they’d have their children attend again. One parent reported, “It was a beautiful new experience for the kids…they learned new things. It helped them a lot in their everyday life.” Another raved, “My son felt happy when he got home.” 

She also realized that her program served another need as it allowed the parents in the program to work or run errands as many of the families could not afford childcare. This, in addition to the impact that it made in the student’s skills, has motivated her to continue to offer Reach for the Stars this fall. She is still working to get her peers involved and serve the community, and works with teammates Gigi Smigel ’23 and Kalli Dinos ’24 to provide this program after school. She has expanded her work to collaborate with Ms. Julie Esanu, our Lower School Librarian, to enhance the quality of reading instruction in the program. Eventually, she wants to implement Reach for the Stars in two more community centers or homeless shelters by the time she graduates. 

She says that her experience has affected the way that she sees her path into the future as she thinks about entrepreneurship and social responsibility more expansively. For now, though, this is her main takeaway: “You can never underestimate the impact that you can have as a person.” 

Tahirah Turnage ’23 (back row, far left) and Zora Rothenberg ’23 (front row, far right)

“The people we met on this trip had faced many challenges, but listening to their stories and seeing how they persevered in living and achieving their goals was very inspiring.”

– Zora Rothenberg ’23

Shoulder-to-Shoulder with The Border: Getting Proximate

Both Zora Rothenberg ’22 and Tahirah Turnage ’22 had similar goals in signing up for a trip to San Diego, and they aren’t the goals usually associated with traveling to San Diego. No, both of these students wanted to travel so that they could challenge the stories that they’d been hearing all their lives about the country to our south and assumptions they’d heard of the border that separates our two countries. To do this, both of them participated in an ethical leadership course with Students Shoulder-to-Shoulder, a St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes partner organization. This course allowed them to work together with ten other students from schools across the country to understand the complexities of immigration.

Tahirah told me that she has always been drawn to topics around racial injustice, and so though she couldn’t understand what migrants were going through directly, she felt a similar thread in her experience as a Black woman. Particularly, though, it was the “contradictions” in typical media stories that drove her to want to go to the border since they gave her a feeling that she wasn’t getting the full truth. She said, “I wanted to get a deeper understanding of why immigrants were getting killed at the border, why they wanted to come into the U.S.”

Zora was also drawn to the idea of filling in some of the blanks left by more common media depictions. She reflected, “[I] see a lot of stuff on the news…but I still didn’t feel like I knew much about it. To hear from activists and professors who knew more about it seemed like a cool experience.”

Shoulder-to-Shoulder centers a lot of its programs around the idea that “learning service” is just as important as “service learning.” In a year like this year, where travel conditions were not safe enough for students to cross into Tijuana, this focus was especially important. Guided by the expertise of Maria Galleta, the founder of the organization Madres y Deportadas en Acción which seeks to support families separated by deportation, and Alex Gomez, a professor who teaches Border Studies at Palomar College and San Diego State University, Zora and Tahirah were still able to achieve their initial goals and get a greater understanding of the experience of those at the border. Under their guidance, they spoke to activists who sought to create friendship and goodwill between people on both sides of the border and to see the border wall with their own eyes as it snaked from San Diego’s picturesque coastline into the inhospitable desert lands to the east. There, they didn’t see migrants, but they saw evidence that they had been there recently: lost clothing and fabric, consumed water jugs, and more.

At the same time, it was the human element of the course that was most powerful for both of them. Zora spoke about her experience in speaking to a set of siblings that Madres y Deportadas is helping and how powerful their story was to her. She reflected, “We couldn’t do much because of COVID, but it’s just really important to hear what people have to say.” In thinking about what she learned about immigration overall, she said, “There’s a perception that it’s the worst of the worst, but it’s really just people trying to stay alive.” 

Tahirah came away from the experience with similar sentiments. She reflected on her time in San Diego by saying, “In the media, they say that the Mexicans are coming, but obviously they’ve been here since the beginning, and we got to see that first hand.” Much like Zora, she felt that the people they met and their stories served as the backbone of their learning: “The people we met on this trip had faced many challenges, but listening to their stories and seeing how they persevered in living and achieving their goals was very inspiring.” She went on to say, “I think I’m pretty good at dealing with setbacks but hearing from someone who has dealt with far more serious issues and still has these lofty goals changes the way I look at life. Allow nothing to stand in your way!”

Both of them have continued to keep thinking and exploring this topic back here at school as one of our Spanish teachers, Jayson Gilbert, served as one of the facilitators on this course and he has continued expanding on this topic in his Spanish V course. 

But despite the continued opportunities to grow and learn here, Zora had one final piece of advice for people who want to know more about the border and immigration in this country: “Until you get proximate, until you get close, you really don’t know that much.”

Collaborating Across Cultures to Lift Girls Up

At the end of my interview with Julianne Karol ’23, she said that she learned that she should never be afraid to ask. That small habit seems to explain Julianne’s journey from having an interest in working with women’s empowerment all the way to her work for the UN Foundation’s Girl Up Initiative organizing their Girl Up Global Leadership Summit. This past year’s theme was “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: Leading the Way to Social Change.”

It’s a summit she’s actually been attending for a couple of years now, dating back to her time in middle school. That involvement inspired her to pursue other events surrounding global citizenship, such as a Global Citizen Festival in New York City. This concert, held to bring awareness to and eventually alleviate poverty around the world, featured Malala Yousafzai as a speaker, and a brush with Malala backstage helped to propel her towards a goal: when she was old enough, she pledged to work as an intern for the event that helped put her on this path.

Two summers ago, she got in touch with the Executive Director of Girl Up and did something simple: she asked if she could intern for them. That email with that simple question enabled her to work on the Global Leadership summer for the week leading up to it. However, she admits for that first year, “I worked on the summit, but just on the busywork.” 

Julianne Karol ’23 promoting her Girl Up club at the Upper School Club Fair.

“The youth of today are going to shape our future and how we tackle the many issues facing our world today, not just locally but on a global scale.”

– Julianne Karol ’23

That busywork, though, opened the door for a much longer internship this past year that exposed her to a greater variety of programs within the organization. She told me, “This past summer, I reached out and asked for another internship, and I was offered a month-long internship being able to work on many different projects that Girl Up and the UN had, along with the summit.” The summit, held over Zoom this year, featured workshops led by girls around the world. As an intern, she sorted through the presentation proposals and made recommendations about what material would be well-suited to the conference. 

Her work on the summit itself culminated in co-facilitating a session on women and sports, speaking about the gender pay gap, media coverage, sponsorship agreements, and more. This is a topic that she was actually not very familiar with herself, but she described the facts she learned as “eye-opening,” saying, “It’s amazing how far reading and educating yourself can go.” In the end, she hosted over 200 people in this session. 

Reflecting on the work, she said that “the sheer amount of energy that comes with the summit and how inspiring it is to work with women around the world who have similar interests or women who lead completely different lives than me” makes her want to return to the summit. She said women can focus on “coming together despite all of [their] differences and the difference in the way [they] live…to unite under one roof—or under one Zoom call—with the same ambitions and the same sort of inspiration to tackle these different issues.” 

However, she also stated that the longer length of the internship allowed her to be in a position to work on programs beyond the summit. She recalled, “I did a little bit of busywork with a colleague on another presentation at the UN…on Global Education, to raise awareness of the gap between the education of women and men, how many women are out of school, and why that might be.” This led to her being involved in the final presentation at a virtual conference hosted in the UK and attended by people all over the world. She said, “Having a small part in that was pretty incredible.” 

Overall, this experience helped her witness the world of experiences beyond St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School. “The summit and working on the summit exposed me to the bubble that I do live in and how I become so involved with my own activities, my own life, and how I can neglect the issues I am passionate about,” she said. She went on to say that the tools that she learned at the summit can help her speak to social injustices and women’s issues at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School. This sentiment led her to organize an all-school assembly where the Deputy Director of Development at Girl Up spoke about the organization’s mission and work. 

All of this experience leads back to the beginning of this piece and Julianne’s parting thought: don’t be afraid to ask. “People want your input, and people want you to use your platform,” she said. “The youth of today are going to shape our future and how we tackle the many issues facing our world today, not just locally but on a global scale.” 

Daniel and Diego visiting members of the ministry of Women of Oaxaca.

“One amazing thing I learned was the effort and time that teachers put in… It was hard when students didn’t participate, so I make a point of participating now.”

– Daniel Runde ’22

Working Beyond Barriers: Connecting Cultures

As a rising junior two summers ago, Daniel Runde ’22 was a bit stuck. He had been planning to fulfill his Upper School Service Project working with his church, but when the pandemic forced all the church’s services online, he no longer had that option. 

Daniel was not deterred though. He identifies as Argentine-American, and is a life-long Spanish speaker. To stay involved in the world around them despite the clear restrictions, he and his friend Diego, who is Mexican-American with the same language skills, just asked themselves a simple question: “Why don’t we teach English on Zoom since we’ve been using [Zoom] for a couple of months?”

The process to answer that question was surprisingly easy. They wrote to a couple of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the area about their idea, and one responded: the Pan American Development Foundation.

The organization connected them to a school in Chiapas, Mexico that had a need to educate adults in English speaking skills. Daniel and Diego worked with Diego’s mother, who has experience in adult education, to put together a curriculum and proposal for their teaching program. Their contact at the Pan American Development Foundation saw this first year as a pilot test, an opportunity to learn about how to offer this service and to think about its future place. 

There were some challenges including what to put in the curriculum and how to incentivize involvement in the program. One core challenge was connectivity. Daniel said, “Originally, they used their cellular data, so we had to raise money for wifi cards.” However, they managed to leap over each hurdle, and in the end, the program was so successful that he continued his work to create a more ambitious program for the summer of 2021. 

Over the course of his teaching, he realized that his interaction with his students in Chiapas was about much more than teaching English; instead, he realized that he was learning just as much from his students about their life and culture. He and Diego centered this learning in the new title for their summer program: Connecting Cultures (Conectando Culturas).

He continued the work with the Pan American Development Foundation, and they connected him to the Ministry of Women in the State of Oaxaca, Mexico. He said that they “focused on women in STEAM, artists, and people working in hospitals” so that they could teach English to people who could use it to share their culture with English speakers. The project also got a lot bigger, no longer just him and Diego. He said, “This year, we recruited around twelve to fifteen bilingual students like us because you need to know how to manage Spanish pretty well to teach English.” With his faculty now twelve to fifteen strong, he and Diego also focused on applying lessons learned from their first year, too. “We improved the curriculum. We had a points system, and we raised money to have a tablet at the end as a prize.” With a larger faculty, the Connecting Cultures program was able to provide English teaching to fifty students.

Managing a larger operation came with more logistical challenges. Daniel said, “It was a lot of back and forth with the Ministry of Women and the people at the Pan American Development Fund. I was the main guy, and had to talk to them individually. It was a mess merging all of that and presenting it to the fifty students.” However, despite the logistical challenges, he was able to learn the skills of managing an educational operation with a wide array of stakeholders. Furthermore, he was able to hone his teaching skills as he learned how to administer tests online, learned how to cold call students—skills that his own teachers were developing alongside him during the online and hybrid learning environments of the past two years. 

In the end, he felt the program was a success, and he’s already planning for next year. He wants to pass it on to the next set of high school students so that they can take ownership of it. At the same time, he said, “I’ll probably keep teaching this summer, but if not, I will still be helping out on the logistical end of the program. I want to think of better ways to raise money for it.” 

Whatever comes of it, the effect of his experience on the way that he looks at the world has been profound. He said, “One amazing thing I learned was the effort and time that teachers put in. I have a lot more respect for teachers. It was hard when students didn’t participate, so I make a point of participating now.” As for what this means for his future, he mentioned his pride in his identity. “I always say I’m Argentine. It’s honestly a really big part of my identity. I’m probably going to end up doing something with Latin America [in my career].” 

But for now, there’s no doubt he made the best of our geographical isolation over the past two years, that he didn’t let it stop him from making connections across cultures. When I asked him whether he got more out of this experience than he would have if we hadn’t been in isolation and he’d been able to volunteer with his local church, his answer was immediate: “One hundred percent.”