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Omaha Serves

Students Learn and Serve in the Big O

Local organizations use service learning to educate and help
students building houses with Habitat for humanity
Published on November 5, 2010 : 1 comment

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The Corporation for National & Community Service announced the start of the National Learn and Serve Challenge last week, a nationwide push to engage youth in volunteerism and service learning.

But what exactly is service learning, and how does Omaha benefit?

Service learning is a method that combines community service with classroom instruction, according to the website for Learn and Serve America, a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), an independent federal organization. 

Students might study the effects of poverty and then help build a Habitat for Humanity home in their city. They might write about how their volunteer experience shaped their understanding of the material. In a national study, the CNCS, which was formed as a governmental agency but in practice acts similarly to a foundation, found that service learning may improve grades and attendance while helping students cultivate personal and social responsibility. 

Here in Omaha, a variety of organizations use service learning to educate students and improve our community. 

Take the University of Nebraska at Omaha, for example, which offers over 100 classes with a service component. 

Three Days of Service in Omaha: photos by Tim FitzgeraldThree Days of Service in Omaha: photos by Tim FitzgeraldDuring semester breaks, UNO students may work on various projects to help neighborhoods and citizens, such as Three Days of Service, which took place on Oct. 16, 18 and 19, 2010. Together with area high school students, corporate partners, and other community members, over 750 UNO students and faculty volunteered during this year’s Three Days of Service, said Kathe Oleson Lyons, Assistant Director of UNO’s Service-Learning Academy. Projects ranged from construction on Habitat for Humanity homes to painting and landscaping with Lauritzen Gardens and 10 other community partners. 

Oleson Lyons said service learning benefits Omaha “because it helps students better understand the needs of our community and organizations that support the community.”

We did over 4,000 volunteer days last year, so we’re busy in the community,” Oleson Lyons said, referring to the number of service days UNO students, faculty, and staff contributed.

Volunteers from UNO, UNMC and Omaha HIgh Schools: photos by Tim FitzgeraldVolunteers from UNO, UNMC and Omaha HIgh Schools: photos by Tim FitzgeraldUNO isn’t the only institute of higher learning busy in our community. 

Metropolitan Community College has engaged in service learning for over eight years, even dedicating an entire office to service learning three years ago.

In a conference call, Penny BoykinsMCC Service Learning Coordinator, and Jennifer Tullos, an AmeriCorps *VISTA (Volunteer in Service to America) worker at MCC, stressed MCC’s commitment to service learning.

Boykins said “close to 80 faculty” incorporate community service into their curriculum.

Students may engage in such projects as a preschool health and safety fair and an elder fair that offers over twenty kinds of vital screening tests for senior citizens—for FREE.

Students in MCC speech classes have worked with elementary schools to improve kids’ public speaking skills and students taking construction courses have built ramps for low-income senior citizens.

We’re helping students realize their civic duties,” Tullos said.

Student volunteers build homes with Habitat for Humanity: photos by Tim FitzgeraldStudent volunteers build homes with Habitat for Humanity: photos by Tim FitzgeraldIn addition to the service learning offerings at UNO and MCC, the Omaha Community Foundation offers a Youth in Philanthropy program, a novel approach combining service learning and philanthropy for promising high school juniors and seniors.

Graduates of the Youth Leadership Omaha program, which introduces selected high school sophomores to community decision-makers, may join Youth in PhilanthropyYIP gives students the opportunity to administer $10,000 in grants to local non-profits. 

The money comes from an interest-bearing fund originally established by the sale of 3-D glasses at the 2000 Millennium Lights celebration, said Patrick McNamara, Director of Philanthropic Services for the Omaha Community Foundation.

McNamara said students choose the theme of each year’s giveaway and invite non-profits to apply. The students then evaluate the grant proposals and decide which organization should receive funding.  

UNO's Annual Three Days of Service occurred Oct 16,18,19: photos by Tim FitzgeraldUNO’s Annual Three Days of Service occurred Oct 16,18,19: photos by Tim Fitzgerald“These youth are learning about the fundraising side but also about the giving-away side,” McNamara said. “Giving away $10,000 is no small feat, and the students take it very seriously.”

University of Nebraska-Lincoln freshman Zach Christensen, a chemical engineering major, chaired last year’s YIP effort when he was a senior at Elkhorn Senior High School. It was a life-changing experience for him.

This program had the greatest impact on me of anything I participated in during high school,” Christensen said. “I was able to learn a lot about the community of Omaha, event planning, meetings, and philanthropy.”

Christensen said the experience is worthy because of the value of sharing.

Sharing is no longer stressed once kids graduate first grade,” Christensen said. “We all grow up clinging to our every penny. This is not what the world needs. The world needs a little compassion, and YIP definitely showed me one way people give that to others.”

Have you seen youth volunteer efforts affect your community?
Do you see a need for more youth service in Omaha and have a have an idea where to begin?

Comment below!

ServeOmahaTom is a Communications Assistant at the Omaha Mayor's Office. He plays guitar for The Answer Team and co-edits the online poetry journal Strange Machine.


Anonymous (not verified) says:

May 29, 2011 : 13 years 3 weeks ago

Anonymous's picture

These kids are doing a great thing. I hope some are turned on to home improvement projects and the many exciting home improvement products that can make life a little better.