Community Outreach in Texas: Students Apply Their Skills in the Real World

By KELLI NEUMAN and AUSTIN LARGE

Picture a group of students storming a council meeting, except they aren’t there to protest — they’re there to run the meeting. One student, witnessing the needs of the elderly and handicapped in her community, creates a handyman organization. Another student, noticing a social gap between special needs students and others, creates a horticulture program and greenhouse garden curriculum to help forge new friendships.

Community outreach is important for students, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because service shows students how to apply their skills in the real world. Service diversifies our experience and makes us process information differently by introducing us to new world views, a vital skill when problem solving.

In the real world, professionals are expected to solve problems and get the job done. The Texas FFA (Future Farmers of America) takes a lot of pride in showing students how to apply STEM education to real-world concepts with an emphasis on giving back. Giving back also has the benefit of making students more prepared to enter the workforce. By being more aware of the world around them and working to improve communities, students gain skills that apply to every career field.

Think big, but start small
It’s easy to list the world’s problems but harder to come up with solutions. Hardest of all is actually starting an action plan. Too many times, we get bogged down by what’s wrong because it’s overwhelming, but students must learn that big solutions start with small steps. We don’t need unlimited supplies of time, money, or even intelligence to make a difference. All we need is the willingness and courage to start small and realize that small steps can lead to big change.

Eighth-grade students at Corsicana FFA were interested in the global food crisis, which led them to learn about aquaponics, a concept many believe will be the future of farming. Aquaponics combines aquaculture (raising aquatic animals in tanks) and hydroponics (cultivating plants without soil), and over the course of the 2017–2018 school year, they put more than 600 hours into a cutting-edge aquaponics project that is also mobile, making it one of the first ever that is portable.

The United Nations says the world will require 100 percent more food by 2050, but instead of getting overwhelmed by this number, these students started small. They built what they could with what they had, right where they were, and ended up with something amazing. That experience will not only build resumes, it will change the way they see the future — and their confidence that they can play a vital role in it.

he biggest lesson students can take from “small” projects at the local level is that any positive impact, regardless of size, is still impact. Starting small can open minds to the possibility of what could be.

Get everyone involved
When students get others involved in their project, they learn teamwork and realize that other people care, too.

Hunter Hackley from Jacksboro FFA decided to build a memorial courtyard to commemorate students and teachers in the Jacksboro, Texas community who have passed away, four of which were students who died during the previous school year. One was a close friend of Hackley’s; another, a teammate. What started as a memorial to the four students became a larger project that serves as a tribute to both students and teachers who impacted the school in the last several decades.

Hackley raised $81,000 for this project. The courtyard is now 2,500 square feet, all designed by Hackley, with flower beds, granite stones engraved with names, and a fountain in the center. Hackley managed the project every step of the way, including budgeting, fundraising, and meeting with contractors. He had help from a local businessman and mentor, Ken Swan, and from administrators and teachers. People got involved because they cared.

Hackley, now a student at Texas A&M University, learned that the community at large wanted to help through donations and mentorship. By engaging with more people, he expanded his project to include the community. Involving others ensures that his project will be well-maintained for years to come.

Don’t reinvent the wheel
Sometimes, instead of starting from scratch, it’s better to improve what’s already there.

Luke Dotson of the Dawson FFA thought his town’s local park, which had become sparse, could offer more. In 2017, the park had dwindled to just a swing set or two and a walking trail. Dotson wanted to create a meaningful community space where people could gather and relax, but creating a new park was cost prohibitive, so he decided to work with what was already there.

While still a full-time high school student, Dotson secured funding and managed contractors to revitalize the public space, adding a new playground, improving landscaping for existing memorials, and staging community events in the park. Though he’s graduated from high school now, Dotson isn’t finished. He has plans to add a community garden, winter holiday decorations, and additional play equipment.

Starting a new project has possibilities but working with what you already have can be a more realistic skill in the real world. Those who can see the possibility in things that just need a little help or polish can do truly great things.

This article originally appeared in ESchoolNews

About the Authors: Kelli Neuman is the leadership development coordinator for the Texas Future Farmers of America (FFA), where she also served as the state vice president in 2011. The FFA connects STEM to the real world through hands-on projects that make classroom learning meaningful and applicable.

Austin Large joined Texas FFA as an executive director in 2017. Prior to this, Large was an education specialist on the leadership development team with the national FFA organization and taught high school agriculture for four years in California.

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