On Dec. 20, students from Forest Park Middle School (FPMS) traveled downtown to Pacific Garden Missions, the oldest homeless shelter in Chicago. They toured the facility, learned about Pacific’s mission, enjoyed a free lunch and, when the time came, presented homemade blankets they created as part of a student-led class project to help those who are homeless. Students said they felt inspired to make the world a better place after reading about those who are homeless in the Forest Park Review. Twenty-one students in Forest Park District 91 are considered homeless. 

It is just one community service project students have focused on this year. 

“We do a lot of community service,” said Natalie Taeftro, an eighth grader and president of the FPMS National Junior Honor Society. “It makes my day to do something to help someone.”

Involving students in community service is just one tactic middle school teachers use to instill the values of empathy and compassion, along with attitudes of self-efficacy and empowerment, in their sixth, seventh and eighth graders. Their goal is to help students acquire character as well as the skills necessary to do well on achievement tests.

  “We do social and emotional learning one day a week,” said Daniel Staser, a social studies teacher at the middle school. “We have a program in the seventh grade, for example, called Second Step in which we’re teaching empathy and compassion.”

Marie Carlisle, who has been teaching at the middle school for 20 years, is a co-advisor of the National Junior Honor Society. She explained why community service is part of the school’s curriculum by quoting Benjamin Franklin: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

Carlisle noted that the five pillars of the honor society—scholarship, character, service, leadership, citizenship—complement D91’s emphasis on instilling values in all students at the middle school.

Student Karen Lunapina, for example, said that she and her classmates have decided to focus their energy on the issue of literacy. After doing research, Lunapina’s group chose two ways to advocate for change—students held a book drive and plan to donate the books to a local hospital, and read to third graders at the Field-Stevenson Elementary School. 

“I think that was really cool,” Lunapina said.  “When I was in third grade I didn’t get that experience. I would have liked it.”

Another class chose to focus on the devastation in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria. Students collected toys and gifts that they plan to donate to the island. “Learning about how bad things are in Puerto Rico made me feel sad,” said student Jakobie Acrue. “They lost all their stuff. If that was me I wouldn’t know what to do.”

Classmate Diamond Macklin added that students are planning a “Photos for Families” event, where they will snap family photos against a background, to get money to ship the toys.

“We’re doing it after the holiday season, because we feel like that’s when people just like stop caring,” Macklin said. “If I had lost all my stuff and somebody gave me a teddy bear I would feel like someone cared.”

Student Natalie Taeftro said her class is addressing the issue of hunger, calling it “one of the world’s biggest problems.” 

“We want to help people who don’t have food, so they can live as we are living,” Taeftro said, adding: “Sometimes I take what I have for granted. I look at myself, and if I see things from their perspective, I want to help. I want to be respectful to everyone I meet, because I don’t know what they are going through.”

Staser said the class that is working on hunger will also be going to a food bank in Geneva to help out by bagging potatoes or doing other work that needs to be done there.  

Seventh grader Kaylee Allen is responding to the issue of malnutrition by raising money to send gummy vitamins to a city in Kenya called Rongai, because she heard that children are not getting a balanced diet.

In addition to what she does with her classmates in school, Sabrina James joins her family in working for an organization called Cradles to Crayons, which collects lightly used clothing, books, toys and more for needy families. 

“Lots of people should try something different to help other people,” James said. “Maybe they don’t help because they don’t know what’s going on in the world. Maybe it’s because they think that other people are doing it so they don’t have to, but people need to get involved. The more people who get involved, the faster we can solve problems. Just devote an hour or half an hour to one specific thing.”

Staser said that other classes are addressing issues like gun violence and animal abuse. He said students pick the issues they work on, plan how they will make the community aware of the issue and organize creative fundraising events.

At the time he was interviewed, student Hector Galant was organizing a secret fundraiser, which he called “The Friday Night Thing.” He wasn’t telling any of his classmates what they would encounter at the event. He shared with the Review, however, that by donating a can of food and paying a dollar to get in, his friends would see the movie Home Alone, eat pizza, try their hand at an obstacle course and have the opportunity to get in on a raffle. He planned to donate the food and money raised to a classmate in a vulnerable situation.  

Explaining part of the motivation for his community service, Galant said: “I used to be in the same situation. My parents didn’t have enough money. I know what the struggle feels like. I don’t want other kids to go through what I went through. My grandfather died because he didn’t have enough money to see a doctor. When I grow up, I want to be a doctor and help people who are in that same situation.”

One way middle school staff reinforces the importance of empathy and compassion to students is by bringing 20 of them to the annual We Day at the Allstate Arena to join 15,000 other kids their age who are declaring that “we” is as important as “me” and are passionate about community service.

Richard Hearn, the middle school’s media specialist, acknowledged that there is no achievement test that can prove that his students are acquiring the values the teachers are trying to instill.

But “I hope and feel strongly that many of them come away with reduced stereotypes and greater intercultural understanding,” he said. “I’m hoping they gain a greater sense of their identity and personal efficacy as well. I definitely see stronger relationships being formed with the faculty and the community.”