By Farrar Richardson, Head of Middle School, Spartanburg Day School, Spartanburg, SC

Service learning is the model and lens through which the Spartanburg Day School (SDS) middle school designs opportunities that promote awareness, understanding, and action related to communities near and far. Whether serving classmates, school, community, nation, or the world, we work to recognize problems, imagine solutions, and feel compelled to act. 

For seven years, the SDS 5th grade has worked to engage the entire middle school in a fundraising effort and service project to support a group of students in Nicaragua to be able to go to school. Without uniforms, they cannot attend school. The SDS middle school sponsors students who cannot afford uniforms by purchasing their uniforms each year. This year, they will see the first students graduate whose attendance has been made possible (in large part) by the SDS 5th grade class. Every grade between 5th and 11th has now contributed to this project, so even upper school students will drop by and put a dollar in the Change-for-Change collection buckets. These upper school students continue to hold a deep connection to this project from when they were in 5th grade.

The 5th graders reach out to the school community each year: The 5th graders have been busy gathering donations for our Change-for-Change service-learning project. We have a goal of raising $1,200 by mid-December to sponsor 15 children in Palacagüina, Nicaragua. Our sponsorship provides these children with new shoes, uniforms, and a backpack of school supplies. In addition to helping our friends stay in school, our students develop a friendship with these children by corresponding via Zoom, exchanging pictures and letters in Spanish, and sharing books. This is our 7th year sponsoring these same 15 children, and we have committed to supporting them through their graduation. Most of our Nicaraguan friends are so grateful for our support that they have worked extra hard to maintain academic honors. Educating the children changes the shape of the whole community. Our dream is for our students to hopefully meet our friends one day through special studies in the upper school.

Spanish teacher, Danielle Frías, facilitates a Zoom with SDS students, their friends in Nicaragua, and an affiliate of this school and friend of SDS, Scott Votey, to ask questions and get to know each other.

This year the class was excited to share the power of their project in the following letters:

“We are so excited to report that the 5th grade has exceeded our goal for our service learning Change-for-Change project! The Nicaraguan school year begins in February and, for the 7th year, we will be able to support 15 children in Palacagüina. We have three students who will be graduating in December. Any additional donations that we receive will go towards helping those three continue onto college. So exciting!”

The students have done a phenomenal job of making announcements, sorting and rolling coins, counting our deposits, and reaching out to family and friends. It is so uplifting to watch them embrace the spirit of this project and to experience that they each are playing a part in bettering the lives of these 15 children, their families, and their community! The fact that we come together as a community to help these children motivates them to excel in school.”

We recently had the pleasure of meeting a Nicaraguan Pastor, Eliab Jarquín, via Zoom, who expressed his gratitude and shared specific examples of how our students are impacting his community. In Spanish class, we wrote letters and drew pictures to send to our Nicaraguan friends. We also signed Spanish and English copies of “The Jungle Book” to send along with our donation. The students actually illustrated and narrated the story in Spanish to accompany the books.

Like most important work, this project is always time consuming but in really good and meaningful ways. Even with COVID, the 5th grade team has not missed a year. It is true service-learning.

Farrar Richardson is the head of middle school at the Spartanburg Day School. She graduated from Davidson College with a degree in psychology and joined Teach for America where she taught 5th grade students in New Orleans. Farrar attended Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and earned a master’s degree in early childhood and elementary education. Farrar joined Spartanburg Day in 2001 as a 5th grade teacher, and became the head of middle school in 2012.

The mission of Spartanburg Day School is to provide a superior educational experience, in a community of trust, that prepares students for a life well lived.