published Sunday, September 1st, 2013

Cook: Howard wants to serve you

You know what some students at The Howard School are always saying to their teachers? Pestering, bugging, nagging. Those pesky kids.

"I have students come to us every day," said Exavious Farley, who leads the school's W.E.B DuBois-inspired Talented Tenth program.

"It happens all the time," said Donna Taheri, director of the school's service learning program.

Every day, all the time, these students are asking this one fan-tabulous question: How can we help?

How can we get out into the community and serve it?

"I want Chattanooga to know that there is a graduating class looking to make an impact with the work of their hands and feet," said Farley.

Farley and Taheri have this beautiful vision: Every last one of Howard's seniors will perform one day of community service before he or she graduates. Each Friday, groups of about a dozen seniors will go out into the community like one giant verb.

"Producing, creating, cleaning, changing, shifting," said Farley.

Got a garden to build? Know an elderly widow whose yard needs to be mowed or raked? Have a concert or performance you need help preparing for?

How about City Hall? Finley Stadium? The trails on Signal? Chester Frost Park? The aquarium? The Dome building? Erlanger?

It's not free labor, mind you. It is an exchange: These kids want an experience bigger than themselves. Service allows them to give back to the community while getting to experience something they'd normally not.

Like a sweat-equity passport, service is their ticket, giving them an honorable way to gain things that are too often in short supply.

"Pride and self-esteem," said Taheri.

For so long, students at Howard have been on the receiving end of things. Grants, funds, mentorship, community help. And God bless all of you who have done that.

But at some point, the road must shift; all that has been given must be returned, otherwise things begin to wilt. This senior-service idea of theirs restores that balance.

"It creates a two-way street where it's been a one-way street," said Farley. "Those kids need X and Y and Z. It's true. But we need to give of ourselves to be complete human beings."

This is the magic of service. Everybody wins. Service softens our hearts and glues up cracks in a way that most other activities can't.

Young people see this as clearly as anyone right now in America.

"There seems to be a general hunger for service in the 30-and-under millennial generation; in 2011 there were 582,000 applications for 82,000 slots in Americorps," reported the July 1 issue of Time. "Programs like the Peace Corps and Teach for America are also bursting with applicants."

So let's do the math.

Howard has 160 seniors, according to Farley's estimates. Dividing them into groups of 10 means 16 groups of service-hungry seniors, with 16 Fridays when they need a place to serve.

Scratch that. I'll take one Friday. That leaves 15.

Are there 15 of you out there willing and able to host Howard seniors for a day? You give them a meaningful service experience in return for, well, pretty much everything that's worthwhile in life.

Howard seniors get a mind-blowing experience. They get to see parts of our community they often aren't able to. (Farley tells the story of one student who, when asked to name the river running through downtown Chattanooga, responded by saying: "What river?")

In return, you get work done on something that's all good for the city. Helping the infirm and elderly, designing a website, resurrecting a greenhouse, cleaning up tornado debris (that's still not done yet.)

Prejudices and assumptions dry up. Friendships are formed. Perspectives change. In our city, something shifts.

"It starts to see these minority kids as truly valuable," Farley said. "And not just someone to work at the chicken house."

Farley believes in this so much he's willing for me to print his cell number here for anyone who may be interested in this.

But first, listen once more to his vision.

"Three years from now, organizations are clamoring for Howard students," he hopes.

Call him at 310-855-2768. He promises he'll answer.

Unless one of his students grabs the phone first.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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