WILMINGTON — For two weeks after Christmas, the senior class at Salesianum School did its learning away from the Wilmington campus.The lesson was service, and the classrooms were nonprofit organizations around New Castle County and into nearby Chester and Delaware counties in Pennsylvania.
The service project, however, came with a twist.
Small groups of seniors teamed up at each of the nonprofits, learning about every aspect of what those organizations do. They reported their findings to a panel of faculty members at Salesianum, who picked three teams that would receive a small financial donation for their nonprofit. The presentations were given on Jan. 13, the end of the two-week period, and the grant winners were announced the week of Jan. 23, but not before this edition of The Dialog went to press.
Dave Freebery, Salesianum’s campus minister, said a group of faculty members came up with the idea, which is in its second year.
“We were trying to envision what a senior capstone project would look like. We were looking at the school calendar, and we found kind of a nice space to put this in,” he said.
It is the culmination of four years of service, Freebery said. The project is an opportunity for every student to shine, “to put into action all they have learned the last three and a half years here.”
The students were assigned their nonprofits in October. Between then and Christmas, they met with the organizations to determine what their two weeks of service would include. The students pretty much had “a blank check” on what their service would entail. Some volunteered with others on the front lines. Others helped in the business end of things, used their handyman skills, or answered phones.
Rev. Mr. Jonathan Dick, the chaplain for the junior and senior classes, said there is an emphasis on service as part of the curriculum at Salesianum. This project was instituted last year as schools were able to do more after the worst of the COVID pandemic.
“The education of the whole student is what we’re looking at,” he said. “It’s guided by the spirituality and teachings of St. Francis de Sales. We hope that through your time in four years here, you know what it means to be a Salesian gentleman. And a Salesian gentleman has compassion for others.”
One of the lessons the organizers hoped the students would learn was that no matter which nonprofit they were assigned, a little bit of work could make a big impact for those on the receiving end. And the students didn’t have to see the people they were helping in order to know they were making a difference, Rev. Mr. Dick said.
The students are told ahead of time to embrace the project and have fun, even if some of the moments are uncomfortable.
The final day of service was Jan. 12, which was a half day at the nonprofit followed by preparation of a five- to 10-minute presentation for the faculty panels. The field was narrowed down to three finalists, who appeared before the school’s philanthropy committee, and a winner was selected.
Rev. Mr. Dick said the husband of a faculty member offered to donate $250 each to the second- and third-place finishers, although the students didn’t know that going in to the final presentations.
Among the nonprofits included were the Blood Bank of Delmarva, Jewish Family Services, Emmanuel Dining Room, Brandywine Creek State Park, Meals on Wheels, Habitat for Humanity and Ronald McDonald House. At some, the students saw the clients every day, but not at all. The students explained to the faculty panels what their days looked like and why their nonprofit deserved a small grant.
The presentation “is a bit nerve-wracking,” said Colin McGhee, whose team volunteered at the Blood Bank. “We want to do the best, and we obviously want to give back to the nonprofit that we spent time at. I have confidence in what we did and what we put together. I think we have a good shot.”
McGhee said he and his four classmates worked in various areas of the Blood Bank, including the corporate office, the lab and with the donors. They hope they were able to build a relationship between the school and the nonprofit that will benefit both in the future.
“We didn’t get to pick where we were, but we’re glad it ended up being the Blood Bank,” he said.
Jack Thompson was part of the group to spend two weeks at the Emmanuel Dining Room in Wilmington. The experience left an indelible mark on them, he said.
“I definitely don’t think we realized how heavy it was going to be,” Thompson said.
The boys believed they would go in, help the clients who are there for breakfast and lunch, then go home, but that was not the case.
“When you see faces that you recognize come in every day, and they look rougher and rougher every day, that’s when it really started to sink in,” he said.
He and his classmates spent time serving meals, but they also reorganized the storage room and performed other tasks. They told the panel that for some people, the Emmanuel Dining Room provided their only meal of the day, and without a steady stream of donations, the nonprofit could not help all of the folks who need it.
On top of that, they saw people suffering from opioid addiction, with needles visible on the sidewalks outside the facility. Thompson said he hoped the intensity of what they experienced came through during their presentation to the panel.
“It’s a little intimidating because I know there are a lot of other guys doing a lot of great work, but I definitely feel like the experiences we took away from this let us talk with a certain amount of conviction. I really do believe that these guys deserve as much money as we can give them,” he said. The group, he added, wanted to come through for people that they got to know.
For Rev. Mr. Dick, that kind of conviction is a sign that the project had the kind of impact the organizers had hoped and that the experience was an important part of their Salesianum education.
“It’s about educating the whole person,” he said. “Our academics are important, the athletics are important, the arts are important, too, but we want to take it to that deeper level of having the guys understand and develop a deeper character through these experiences.”