Education comes in many forms. In an ever-changing world, it has become increasingly important to focus on balance. Instruction in technology, history, communication, mathematics and English are all vital to a student’s intellectual growth, but there are equally important, less tangible lessons to be learned in the classroom, and in life itself. .   

One of the ways young people learn empathy and compassion is by volunteering. The act of serving the community without promise of payment is a character builder than cannot be captured on standardized tests.

The Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD) currently lists volunteering as a requirement for graduation. According to the district’s website, pusd.us, the PUSD is “committed to providing every student with a foundation of knowledge and character necessary to excel in higher education, work, and life.”

This aligns directly with the district’s views on what constitutes a balanced education — and a mindful citizen. The district’s requirements for graduation are three-fold; 21st Century Skills (communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity/innovation), College and Career Readiness, and lastly Global Citizenship and Cultural Competency, as well as other attributes for graduates to lead a healthy life. As of 2019, all three are now requirements for a high school diploma from PUSD.

In addition to the required 220 credits of coursework, 40 hours of community service is also mandated for each student to graduate. According to the website, “Students may complete service activities at school, home, or in the community as long as credit or payment is not received.”

Blair High School in Pasadena is a shining example of how volunteerism can be taught at lower grades with remarkable results.

According to Blair’s website, “Community service is an important part of who we are at Blair. All students in grades six through 10 must complete community service as part of our International Baccalaureate (IB) Middle Years Programme.”

Blair requires 20 hours of community service for sixth and seventh graders, 25 hours for eight graders, 30 hours for ninth graders, and 35 hours for tenth graders. This reflects the recently revised guideline for graduation, beginning with the class of 2019.

One of the many reasons volunteering can be such a worthy education for students is that many of them may come from fairly affluent communities where they’re unlikely to meet those coming from families struggling economically.

Perhaps there are peers they may interact with from differing socio-economic backgrounds, but it is not until a student immerses him or herself in the lives and circumstances of others that he or she sees how many in the world may have fewer opportunities, not necessarily through any fault of their own.

Knowing a person’s hardship and witnessing how many in the same community have dissimilar opportunities goes a long way toward building empathy, and the kind of compassion that makes one want to work to change lives for the better. Promoting selflessness through community service is indeed a powerful tool to motivate young people to be the change we so desperately need to see in the world.

Young people who have volunteered at hospitals and in other roles as caregivers will tell you that, aside from being stirred and often saddened by the plight of the sick or chronically ill, they develop a new appreciation for their own healthy bodies. Those with issues at home may develop a new outlook on their own problems and grievances with family.

According to Psychology Today (psychologytoday.com), there are specific neurobiological changes that occur in the brain when one gives of themselves without expectation of compensation. Researchers utilized functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify three distinct advantages to the brain that altruism provides. According to the study, these advantages were; reduced stress-related activity in one area of the brain, greater reward-related activity in another, and finally, greater care giving-related activity in another. According to the Psychology Today website, the results of the study reported that “in all of these brain areas, fMRI scans showed specific activation when a participant was giving support, but not when receiving support.”

When all study data was collated and reviewed, it became evident to the participants and researchers that, “On a neurobiological level, this research pinpoints specific ways that when you help others, you’re also helping yourself. The rewards of giving and receiving social support create the ultimate win-win situation.”

I can remember in middle school my mother taking my brother and me to the Union Rescue Mission in downtown LA to serve Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless.

It was a startling, eye-opening and very worthwhile experience. We served a turkey dinner to many of the most down-and-out people in the city: men with open headwounds, those battling mental illness and bewildered, and frightened young families struggling to stay together and stay warm.

The grief and sadness in the room was palpable, but what also wafted about, in abundance, was the feeling of community; the feeling of being part of someone’s better day, full belly, and slightly improved circumstance. The gratitude that was shown to us volunteers moved me inexplicably, and I left feeling wiser, more mature, and above all, more grateful for what I’d been given.