Research Notes: Learning Through Community Service

Research Notes

by Gwynn Powell

Community-service projects have traditionally been a part of many summer
camp programs. Countless trails have been built or made accessible, staff
blood drives have been held for local blood banks, food and toy donation
drives have been held for local charities, just to name a few. But how
and why should a camp get or stay involved in community service?

Benefits of Service Learning

Service learning is an educational movement taking place on campuses
ranging from elementary to university levels that gives a deepening twist
to volunteerism with a focus on training and reflection related to volunteer
community service (Korbin & Mareth, 1996). The projects often cross
ethnic, age, gender, and issue boundaries to foster effective citizenship
between the participants and leaders. Studies have been conducted to
see what types of changes occur among students participating in service
learning. The results of one such study indicate increased ability in
cognitive complexity, social competency, perceptions of working with
diverse others, and self-certainty (Osborne, Hammerich, & Hensley,
1998). These skills could be gained through many avenues, but service
learning offers participants the opportunity to wrestle with tough problems
and seeks to make a difference, which takes the important issues of humanity
out of the abstract and gives them names, faces, and a personal connection
(Godfrey, 2000).

Implementing Community Service at Camp

In addition to documenting the educational value of community service
programs, work has been done to develop implementation models and risk-management
guidelines. The models developed for these programs offer starting points
and potential partnerships for camps. The range of community involvement
through camp is endless; the challenge is to develop safe, specific projects
that further the mission and philosophy of the camp program while broadening
the exposure opportunities for campers and staff.

Implementation model

The National Youth Service Day XI Toolkit (Youth Service America, 1999) can
serve as a template for beginning new service projects or strengthening existing
projects at camp. The following key points from the template have been adapted
to apply to the camp community:

  • Set specific goals. Brainstorm the overall vision, target groups
    to serve, and what the project says about your organization.
  • Choose project sites. What issue do you want to address, e.g., literacy,
    environment, HIV/AIDS, elderly, or low-income housing? What size do
    you expect the project to be, e.g., one day, ongoing through the summer,
    one cabin group, or entire camp? What type of service are you imagining,
    e.g., collecting donations, clean-up, or construction projects? Will
    the project be activity or performance based? What expectations does
    the agency have? Who will supply the equipment needed? What logistics
    are needed?
  • Prepare leaders. Create guidelines for site assessment, communication
    with agency, and training in skills to lead on-site reflection, evaluation,
    and camper orientation and training, including safety and liability

    n Organize the event. Who will manage details, troubleshoot, and instigate
    learning opportunities during the project?
  • Follow up. Process learning with campers, with the agency, and those
    who received help.
  • Plan a way to tell the story to others. Each project has the potential
    to be radically different, and/or you may find a project that works
    very well for your program that can be taken to varied sites. The key
    to success seems to be the integration level of the project with the
    camp program. A progression from doing projects in camp to neighboring
    land to the broader community helps with the growing pains of lessons
    learned by doing and helps campers and staff members grow into the
    responsibilities of larger projects.

Risk-Management Issues

The general principles of risk management that apply every day at camp
also apply to service-learning community projects, but extra attention
to the safety of participants in a community project is important. The
Nonprofit Risk Management Center (Seidman & Patterson, 1996) offers
the following strategy:

  • Identify the risks. Analyze developmental characteristics of the
    age group, legal duties, and responsibilities, and examine the situation,
    e.g., site, staff, activities, and agency.
  • Assess the risks. Categorize the risks. What can your organization
    tolerate? Which risks can be reduced or even eliminated?
  • Decide how to control the risks. Use control measures that may include
    avoidance by deciding not to offer a specific program; modification
    of policy, plan or procedure; transfer through contract; or insurance,
    retention, and preparation for consequences.
  • Implement the risk-management strategy. Follow through with plans
    and procedures; create a culture of understanding the importance of
    enforcing policy.
  • Review and revise the risk-management strategy. Involve participants
    in the process of improving and addressing issues for the next time.

These steps are an important part of the planning process and can also
be an important part of orienting campers to the process and plans for
the community project. Campers' perspectives may lead to new issues for
your staff to consider, and consequently, campers can enjoy the opportunity
of contributing to the overall risk-management team.

Unique safety precautions

The above general risk-management steps apply to both every-day camp experiences
and community-service projects; however, community-service projects may well
induce the need for specific risk-management guidelines that apply to unique
situations beyond the normal camp day. For example, does the nature of the
project necessitate providing guidelines for campers interacting with the
public; discussing first-aid and emergency precautions (How far is emergency
medical help from the project site? Will tools or equipment be used that
require safety procedures or first-aid supplies?); or determining creative
ways to identify a group of campers in a large crowd if the project is off
site (brightly colored bandanna, same T-shirts, wristband, etc.)? Use of
the planning process outlined in the standards for program operating procedures
provides a platform to address situations in a proactive manner prior to
the project.

Because the project may be out of the normal routine, the standard procedures
may not address the complexity or scope of the potential danger. The
planning process has potential to increase the benefits and reduce the
risks by examining as many angles as possible.

Community involvement is about sharing and learning. You and your program
are in a community . . . . How can you become a more integrated part
of it? Brainstorm a few ideas, implement one, and see where it takes
you and your community . . . be a catalyst for increasing the learning
opportunities for your camp community and beyond!

Godfrey, P. C. (2000). A moral argument for
service-learning in management education. In P. C. Godfrey & E.
T. Grasso (Eds.), Working for the Common Good: Concepts and Models
for Service-Learning in Management. Washington, D.C: American Association
for Higher Education.
Korbin, M., & Mareth, J. (1996). Service
Matters: A Sourcebook for Community Service in Higher Education.
Denver, CO: Education Commission of the United States.
Osborne, R. E., Hammerich, S., & Hensley,
C. (1998). Student effects of service learning: Tracking change across
a semester. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, (5),
Seidman, A., & Patterson, J. (1996). Kidding
Around? Be Serious! Washington, D.C.: Nonprofit Risk Management Center.
Youth Service America. (1999). National Youth
Service Day XI Toolkit. Washington, D.C.: Youth Service America,

Gwynn Powell is an assistant professor at
the University of Georgia teaching recreation and camp administration.
She has twelve years of professional year-round experience in camping.
Please contact Powell through e-mail, for
further information regarding article content or to share research

Originally published in the 2001 September/October
issue of Camping