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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

How Can Service-Learning Make a Change


The first time we started speaking about how to promote service-learning, all of us on the Peace Corps/Bulgaria staff were a bit skeptical. We were not sure we even knew how to translate it into Bulgarian with less then ten words. We eventually managed to express it in seven—

However, once we started pondering the ideas behind it, we realized that it is already happening around us, just not by this name. I thought of a recent site identification visit where I met a group of mothers who have set up a day center for children with disabilities. Fate can be tender and harsh at the same time; the initiator of the day care center is a mother who was blessed with twins, one of whom has special needs. This center is managed by mothers who develop programs for their children, while also involving Roma children who have disabilities, as well as their mothers.

Our Project Design and Management (PDM) training in early 2009 seemed to be a great opportunity to help enable more than 150 Peace Corps Volunteers and their counterparts to consciously involve community members on an ongoing basis. So, we

  • Integrated the concepts of volunteerism and service-learning throughout our PDM design, sessions, and workbook.
  • Stressed a mobilizing-your-community approach, rather than looking for external funding.
  • Helped participants analyze the difference between pure volunteerism and an ongoing service-learning philosophy, and see that these are not at odds in terms of benefits to any stakeholders.
  • Had participants plan actual small community projects that address needs in their communities.

And to our great pleasure, when volunteers and local partners presented their community project plans through a "gallery walk" at the end of the two-day seminar, almost all of the colorful flipcharts evoked their visions of small community work. It was not the "hard sell" we have anticipated, and they "got it."

Further motivated and energized, a few staff members decided to try to volunteer at one of the at-risk centers in Sofia. The first get-together with the sixteen or so young people was right before Easter. We experienced first-hand the challenges of being Peace Corps Volunteers, instead of playing the support role for volunteers, as we do each day. And "challenges" might not be the most correct word in this case. The truth is that we were lost, and all the preparation—intelligent games, talks, activities—vanished. It was a totally different world. However, after the first frustration we got conscious and managed to establish contacts with most of the young people—minor moms, ethnic minorities, broken families. One of the colleagues talked to a young woman whose life was centered around different charities; another colleague drew youths' interests with her filmmaking skills, and they arranged a first meeting date to start a class. Another one of us gathered English-interested youth for weekend study.

Yesterday, May 16, the English class started—12 young people with different levels of motivation to study. A few thought that English can help getting a job; another's dream was understanding lyrics to English songs, and a few came to just socialize. The impressions of the trainer after class were: "A totally different world, like a parallel life to the one that we are living, but these lives rarely cross, if ever."

So we've already started it. Let us see how service-learning can make a change.


About the Author

Ivan Hristov

Peace Corps Staff Ivan Hristov, Youth Development Program Assistant in Bulgaria