A Compassionate Mission: How Community Service Shapes the Culture at MICDS

“Semifinal Night in December is the greatest day of the year here on campus,” said Assistant Athletic Director Marshall Newman as he described a longstanding tradition of service at MICDS — just one of the many ways the School is engaged in the community and beyond.

On Semifinal Night, the bleachers of McDonnell Gymnasium are packed to the brim. The crowd represents a diverse amalgam of parents and students from both MICDS and other area schools whose basketball teams have made it to the semifinal matches of MICDS’ hosted holiday tournament — the largest one in St. Louis. As Newman described why it’s “the best night of the year,” he wasn’t referring to the competition. He was referring to the cause.

Photo by Mike Schoen

“This is our 17th year donating every single dime of our proceeds from the tournament to Special Olympics Missouri. And every year, between the two semifinal matches, players from West County Special Olympics play a 15-minute exhibition game,” he said.

Athletes from all four semifinal teams line the court’s perimeter while young, talented players who live with varying disabilities hustle for the ball. Meanwhile, the MICDS cheerleaders shuffle through the bleachers collecting donations for Special Olympics Missouri. Without a doubt, at the end of each year’s exhibition game, student-athletes from all four of the semifinal teams rush the court, giving high fives and hugs to the exhibition players.

A Tradition of Service Starting in Lower School

At MICDS, community service is a tradition. It’s not an added part of the culture. It’s not some requirement students grumble about. Rather, it’s an ingrained part of the School’s identity and Mission to prepare leaders who will meet the challenges of this world and embrace all its people with compassion.

The spreading of kindness and awareness about local, national, and global issues starts as early as Junior Kindergarten. Throughout the year in the Lower School, students participate in drives and fundraisers to help those in need.

 

“For the greatest impact, we focus on the quality of the service projects, not the quantity,” said Sarah Garner, Lower School Art Teacher. “It’s a service-learning approach, so students are actively engaged in the work and raising their own awareness at the same time.”

This fall, students from JK-4 collected backpacks, school supplies, socks and sleeping bags for children impacted by the Hurricanes in Texas, Louisiana and Florida. Each year, they also participate in a box top collection, and students learn leadership skills at the same time, as they nominate and vote for the organization where the proceeds will go. This year, the collection supported Tiny Superheroes, an organization that makes individualized capes and donates them to empower children who are overcoming illness or disability.

In the spring, Lower School students participate in the annual, schoolwide Pennies for Peru drive. Pennies for Peru is an organization that focuses on Peruvian children living in the streets, and each year, the MICDS drive culminates in the Lower School Gallery Night. During Gallery Night, members of the community are able to purchase cards made by students, and proceeds go directly toward the organization’s efforts.

Another soon-to-be tradition that started this year in the Lower School is the division’s Day of Caring and Kindness. In preparation for the day, faculty facilitated discussion with students about the Golden Rule. During the event, students rotated through various service-learning activities. Collectively, they created greeting cards for United Service Organizations (USO) at Lambert International Airport, made more than 120 scarves for Loaves and Fishes, decorated kindness rocks, and read books about what it means to be grateful.

“Even our youngest students can understand the idea, ‘taking care of others.’ Service-learning projects provide ways for students to develop critical thinking, collaboration, empathy and a sense of agency. During the project, we take time to learn about who it is for, how we can best take care of the need, and that when we work together our contributions can make a big difference,” said Head of Lower School Janet McMillion. “When children re-visit these service opportunities year after year, the importance of service becomes more deeply ingrained.”

Middle School Prioritizes Giving Back

In the Middle School, students take ownership for service-learning efforts. In fact, they’re just as committed as the faculty.

For example, around the holidays, 7th graders made bags of care for members of the St. Louis community, an idea brought forth by Lucy Zimmer `23 who thought it would be helpful for people to have something pre-made in their car to give someone in need. The bags consisted of necessary items such as hats, socks, tissues, a toothbrush, Band-Aids and deodorant. Students kept bags for themselves to put in their families’ cars, while the rest of the bags were donated to St. Patrick’s Center.

Middle Schoolers are also heavily involved in MICDS’ relationship with Northside Community School. MICDS 8th graders help plan and throw a Halloween party for the Northside students, and in late fall, the 8th grade class also spent time at the school during their day of service.

“Community service in the Middle School allow students to embrace the School’s Mission and reach out to provide support,” said Head of Middle School Jen Schuckman. “Students experience a variety of opportunities from helping out on our own campus to raising funds for an important charity to supporting local St. Louis agencies with their time and service.”

Upper School Unites Around Causes

It’s uncommon for a week to go by without some sort of community service project in the Upper School. Whether it’s parent, student or teacher-led, it’s clear there’s a culture of generosity that permeates throughout.

“Community service provides so many opportunities to both understand our many connections to our broader community and to act on the core MICDS principles of compassion, purpose, and service,” said Head of Upper School Scott Small. “These moments also reify the importance of engagement and commitment within the Upper School community itself.”

One of the community service traditions that Upper School students are most passionate about is the annual Derek D. Martin Food Drive, which happens in late fall. Derek Martin was a firefighter for the St. Louis Fire Department. His engine house ran an annual food collection before the winter holidays to feed needy families in their community. After Mr. Martin died in the line of duty, the food drive was renamed in his honor. Mr. Martin’s daughter, Kayla ’17, introduced the food drive to MICDS, and this year marks the students’ 4th year participating. In total, they collected more than 2,600 items for donation.

“It was amazing to see the students become so enthusiastic for a great cause. The drive brought everyone together to be essential difference-makers,” said Dillon Scott `18.

Throughout the year, Upper School students participate in Best Buddies, an organization that facilitates 1-to-1 friendships between with intellectual and developmental disabilities and students without, allowing both to learn more about each other and themselves.

“My favorite part about Best Buddies is that it not only has an impact on the lives of the students with disabilities, but it also has a great impact on our students at MICDS,” said Maddie Goldberg `19. “Both members of the friendship gain so much out of the relationship, and are very grateful for the opportunity to learn about someone that is different from them. But above all, it shows us how much we can really have in common with someone that seems so different on the surface.”

This year, the Upper School also forged a partnership with the Dewey International Studies Elementary School, a magnet school in St. Louis’ Dogtown neighborhood. A group of Seniors visited Dewey during the Upper School’s annual Day of Caring and Leadership, where they worked closely with Dewey students to clean up the school’s community garden. While MICDS students have been integral in this new partnership, MICDS parents are also leading the charge.

“Parent volunteers go to the school weekly (or in some cases every other week) and work with students in mentor roles. The relationships they are building with these children can be life altering” said MICDS parent Susan Goldberg. “We are currently working with 26 children, but there are many more who could use a tutor/mentor, and we are continually recruiting more members of the community to get involved.”

Service Travel

MICDS also leads various domestic and international service travel trips for students. Each year, MICDS leads a group of students during spring break on a volunteer trip with Habitat for Humanity — a tradition spanning 19 years, 16 of which have involved work in the community of Baytown, Texas. There they help frame walls, build sheds or do other miscellaneous projects.

Students and faculty also embark on a semi-regular trip to Peru, where they volunteer with medical students at a local clinic as well as visit with and bring donations to children at several Peruvian orphanages and schools.

“This trip to Peru has given us not only the tools but the motivation to change the hardship we see, to make the lives of these people we’ve encountered better, in any way that we can. That, I think, is the biggest success of this trip,” said Mary Moore ’18, who went on the trip in 2016.

Last summer, a group of Upper School students also went to South Africa, where they spent several days working with children at the Nkomo Primary School in rural KwaZulu-Natal province. While there, they led a mini day-camp, served food, did crafts/art projects, taught and led games native to South Africa and sang each other’s national songs.

“Going to South Africa was ‘the best experience of my life. Meeting, befriending and interacting with people from across the world—having the opportunity listen to them share their story meant everything to me,” said Cara Johnson `18.

Community Service Across Divisions

While each division has its unique approach to service, some activities span across divisions. One of the most well-known cross-division acts of community service happens around Thanksgiving. Turkey Train.

This year marked the 14th annual Turkey Train, where MICDS provides the largest amount of frozen turkeys for the St. Louis Area Food Bank. During the event, Upper School students form a line and pass the turkeys one-by-one in a “train” until they reach the vehicle that transports them to the food bank. This year, the School donated 536 turkeys and 3,111 pounds of other food items for a total of 10,295 meals provided locally. During an All-School assembly, the Co-heads of Upper School Community Service present the totals to the entire School and a representative of the Food Bank. Members of the Lower School present a food basket that symbolizes the School’s cumulative donation.

“The spirit of giving is more powerful than receiving. Take a moment to think about this, and we hope that today signals the start to a holiday season where we acknowledge what we are grateful for and reach out a hand to those who may not be as fortunate as we are,” said Elizabeth Hughes `18, Upper School Community Service Co-head, who spoke along with Co-head Julia Kemp `18 during the Turkey Train All-School assembly.

Embodying the Mission

At MICDS, we harness Nelson Mandela’s words when he said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” When we talk about education, we mean more than just building a student’s intellectual capacity. We also cultivate compassion and arm students with the resolve to stand for what is right and good. Creating a culture where students, faculty, staff and parents engage frequently in community service is one of the ways we work toward fulfilling our Mission to prepare graduates who will lead lives of purpose and service, and we hope to continue this good work locally, nationally and internationally for generations to come.

Quick Facts:

During the 2016-2017 academic year, the Upper School student body recorded 18,116 volunteer hours. Each year, MICDS recognizes those students who receive the Presidential Service Award, which requires at least 50 hours of community service for recipients 15 and under, and at least 100 hours of service for recipients ages 16 and older. Last year, 51 MICDS students received the Presidential Service Award, and together they tallied nearly 8,000 service hours.