Using privilege for service: reflections on 9th grade service learning day

Louise Kim

The day before my 9th grade Service Learning Day trip to the Ittleson Center on Nov. 14, 2019, I was filled with excitement as I thought back on my experiences with service learning in the Middle Division, including trips to the Mercy Center Carnival and New York Common Pantry. I wondered if my experience the next day would be as enriching as those in which I had previously participated. What were the facilities and the kids like? What were their lives like? Most importantly, how would we be able to help the kids?
Each student traveled with their Horace Mann Orientation class (HMO) to different locations, including Van Cortlandt Park, the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center, and the Mosholu Montefiore Community Center. My HMO group went to the Ittleson Center, a program that offers special education and treatment for children ages five to 13 who have faced family problems and emotional trauma.
When we arrived at the center, we were given an introduction to the program. We then went to the gymnasium to wait for the kids who came to meet us after their morning classes. There were about 30 students in the center, but we met about 15. We played four-square, basketball, and volleyball with the students for about an hour. Some of the kids weren’t interested in playing sports, so a few of us drew with them instead. The kids were energetic, playful, and constantly smiling. One thing that struck me was the children’s respect and kindness for one another. For example, when one kid had the volleyball and another kid wanted to serve, the first kid would give the ball to the second without a moment’s hesitation.
Before we left the center, one of the caretakers told us that the children were asking if we would come back next week. I felt a rush of emotions. I was sad that they would miss us but happy that we had been able to spend the day with them. Afterwards, I realized just how excited they were to see us—we heard that the children didn’t meet people from outside environments often, let alone other students in their age range.
My experience at the center definitely led me to think in a deeper way about our roles in society and how our school is involved in developing them. Our community is designed to help us develop a mindset of service and empathy for others. This is even written into our mission statement: “Horace Mann School prepares a diverse community of students to lead great and giving lives.” Receiving an education in this institution is a privilege. Our mission statement is unique in that it shows one of the goals of the school is to use the education and privilege it provides students with to give service to the world—we are not only wielders of privilege, but we are also givers of its product.
Positions of privilege come with the responsibility to acknowledge that privilege and to use it to help others, especially those who are less privileged, in ways that show respect, empathy, and grounds for connection. Our school implements the Service Learning program to teach its students that these responsibilities must be fulfilled and that we must put our privilege in perspective.
Through expressing gratitude for our privilege and giving our time and energy to do good works with good intentions, we can make the world better. However, this cannot end with a single day of service requirement—this should be only the beginning of our path to leading great and giving lives. We cannot live a life focused on ourselves because this is a misuse of our privilege. As Horace Mann himself put it, “Doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves.”
Setting aside resistance, reluctance, and cynicism, we need to reflect on our position in society as people who both have the privilege and responsibility of helping others. From my experience at the Ittleson Center, I learned that people appreciate even the smallest acts of kindness. The students left the gym with smiles on their faces and, afterwards, talked about how happy they were that we had visited—and all we had done was play games and draw with them. They had even asked if we were coming back, showing how much impact a little time and compassion can achieve.
Service learning builds lasting connections rather than one-time moments by continuously reminding us to create a positive impact in our community. The program can be seen as a requirement to graduate or an opening to spaces where we can work with the school’s resources to make these ripples in the world outside of our school. I’ll always remember the way the students smiled, and I now realize that having this opportunity to help others is a gift that we can use to change the world. From our experiences with service learning throughout our education, and through an analysis of our school’s tradition, mission statement, curriculum, and service events, we can learn more about our privilege, our role in society, and ourselves.