How one high school in Utah is teaching kids an invaluable lesson about community service.
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For one week each year, the students and staff of Juan Diego Catholic High School don't show up to the campus at all.

It's not a vacation, and it's not a school trip.

They're spending the week volunteering with an organization of their choice as part of a service program made to teach kids about community, hard work, and the value of helping those in need.


Juan Diego Catholic High School. Photo via Sydney Barnes/YouTube.

Juan Diego is showing firsthand the value of service for students and the community.

Over 200 seniors at the school choose to spend a week volunteering at one of the 27 service agencies involved in the program — all of which are organizations that help serve marginalized communities.

"We have everything from students going to the Utah AIDS Foundation and dealing with HIV prevention and awareness to Saint Vincent de Paul soup kitchen," Director of Campus Life Dave Brunetti says over the phone.

Photo courtesy of Mickelle Marston/Juan Diego Catholic High School. Used with permission.

While volunteering, students get experience with real service work, and they help uplift the community — and themselves — in the process.

"Our school's motto is Spiritus Donorum, which translates to 'the spirit of giving,'" says Brunetti, adding that schools don't often give their students a vantage point to think about marginalized communities, let alone a specific opportunity to help them.

Photo courtesy of Mickelle Marston/Juan Diego Catholic High School. Used with permission.

"When you put a student in an intensive week such as this, our experience has been that it is completely transformative," he continues.  

While community service is a standard high school extracurricular, Juan Diego approaches it a little differently.

"It goes beyond volunteering," says Brunetti. Since the program is about helping marginalized communities like the homeless, it provides one-of-a-kind learning opportunities. "When you are the person assisting [a homeless woman] — coming in and getting food for her and her children, it changes the way you look at things."

Photo courtesy of Mickelle Marston/Juan Diego Catholic High School. Used with permission.

While anyone in high school can volunteer to fill out an obligatory requirement or college prerequisite, building the program this way ensures that students come face to face with people less fortunate than them.

"It's eye-opening and it will benefit everyone," Apiak Gai, a student at the school, told news station Good 4 Utah. "I'm learning that not everyone is the same and not everyone has the same opportunities. We shouldn't shut them out; we should give them a helping hand."

The school also believes that service is essential to a well-rounded education.

"If we just graduate students that are smart but we don’t give them a sense of compassion and empathy about how to show up in the real world, then we have totally ripped them off," says Brunetti.

Photo courtesy of Mickelle Marston/Juan Diego Catholic High School. Used with permission.

While there aren't many schools that build volunteering and community service directly into their curriculum, perhaps there should be.

As the Corporation for National & Community Service notes, volunteering can be incredibly beneficial to your community and even your health. One study found that volunteering led to improvements in stamina, memory, and levels of depression. And if you volunteer once, you're more likely to do it again, according to another study (PDF).

Most of all, though, Juan Diego's service program is about creating a better world for all of us.

Photo courtesy of Mickelle Marston/Juan Diego Catholic High School. Used with permission.

Juan Diego Catholic High School has committed to service not just because it helps teach their students unique lessons, but because it uplifts their entire community, helps provide a more well-rounded education, and goes a long way toward making the world a better, more selfless place.

"When you give them the opportunity to step up, there are some wonderful, wonderful students that are just waiting to become responsible, contributing adults," says Brunetti.

"And that's the reason I do what I do."

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Those of us raising teenagers now didn't grow up with social media. Heck, the vast majority of us didn't even grow up with the internet. But we know how ubiquitous social media, with all of its psychological pitfalls, has become in our own lives, so it's not a big stretch to imagine the incredible impact it can have on our kids during their most self-conscious phase.

Sharing our lives on social media often means sharing the highlights. That's not bad in and of itself, but when all people are seeing is everyone else's highlight reels, it's easy to fall into unhealthy comparisons. As parents, we need to remind our teens not to do that—but we also need to remind them that other people will do that, which is why kindness, empathy, and inclusiveness are so important.

Writer and mother of three teen daughters, Whitney Fleming, shared a beautiful post on Facebook explaining what we need to teach our teenagers about empathy in the age of social media, and how we ourselves can serve as an example.

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