by Betsy Farrell-Messenger

The way schooling is designed today can be challenging for youth, with competing priorities such as testing, sports, homework, and extra-curricular activities — all of which create different stresses.

Students are often being told where to go and what is on their schedule, missing out on important critical thinking and problem-solving skills. And for some students, their time may be limited to thinking more about themselves, instead of about helping others.

Our school, Brown School in Schenectady, New York, decided to create a Community Outreach Crew. The Community Outreach Crew was created in part to promote awareness of important issues in our society and community.

The Community Outreach Crew provides an opportunity within the school setting for students to develop a compassionate, giving mindset and to cultivate critical thinking and problem-solving skills, with a greater goal of creating changemakers.

The Crew has engaged in several projects. One of the main projects, and a dream of the recently retired school librarian, was to build a Little Free Library.

The Little Free Library’s mission is “to promote literacy and the love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide and to build a sense of community as we share skills, creativity, and wisdom across generations.”

The students did some research and found that there was not a public library within walking distance of the school, and felt that was not a just situation. The school is surrounded by residential homes and neighboring schools, so the Little Free Library provides useful access to reading materials for children in the area.

Advisory groups take turns being in charge of the library.

students and rescued horse
Students enjoy horse time at Peaceful Acres Horses sanctuary.

The Crew went on an off-campus trip that took us to Peaceful Acres Horses (PAH). PAH, a “Sanctuary for People and Horses,” is a non-profit organization on 156 acres in rural Schenectady County. The students were given a tour, and they openly discussed the why the horses where there: due to neglect, because they were surrendered, or because they were rescued from the slaughter pipeline.

During our time at PAH, students spent time connecting with the horses to gain their trust and to help them understand that humans can be kind. Since our first visit to PAH, the Crew has visited on two other occasions; students get excited to visit the individual horses with whom they’ve bonded.

The students have their own reflections about what the Community Outreach Crew means to them:

“I wanted to do something after school, to learn about animals, and how to help them. The animals have needs, too. The Crew is a place where I can feel at home helping the world.”  ~ Liam

Liam was particularly moved when the group visited Kingsway, a local senior residential community. He met Alta, a senior who is witty, musical, and liked to talk about her knitted garments, and Alta adored Liam. Afterwards, Liam expressed, “It was fun meeting Alta.” He continued, “All seniors deserve a place to live happily, not just certain people that can afford it.”  We continued to talk about why the current situation exists and ways to change the system. I’m hoping a seed was planted.

student helping elder with art therapy project
A student works with an elder on an art therapy project at a local care home.

“I joined the Crew because I felt like helping the community, and it would be a good thing to do. It means a lot to the people, animals, and environment to help them and save them.”  ~ Leah

Leah has a particular passion for animal welfare. We regularly have discussions about the issues and solutions to the problems. Our conversations go on and on, and sometimes we pause to notice how complicated solving these issues is, and to recognize that it can be done! I’m hoping a seed was planted.

Although we don’t have enough time to go as deeply into the issues and solutions as I’d like, students come away with a greater understanding of how they can help those in need and work toward creating a better world.

With each student a seed has been planted, and soon a garden of compassion will grow.

Our Crew has gotten some terrific news coverage of our work.