Civic Engagement and the Power of UNO

For Leaders in Action, the month of December was our Civic Engagement Unit. Not really a time for the typical lesson plans, but an opportunity for our students to focus on their own community and discover what kind of impact they can really make. Less ‘talking’ inside the classroom and more ‘doing’ outside. The trails and wooded slopes of Bolivar Nature Park got combed and cleaned of any bit of trash in sight. The banks of the Shenandoah River at Moulton Park also got a nice makeover after the students removed at least 4 full trash bags of litter, bottles, paper, cans, etc.

These parks are county parks and it was great to make the connection with them surrounding the question of, “Whose parks are these?” The answer was of course, “ours.” They are preserved for the residents of the county to enjoy, care for, and learn from. As we talked a bit after the river clean-up before hopping back into the van, it became apparent just how much had been accomplished in such a short amount of time. When a place is cleaner, others are more likely to take care of it and keep it that way. Part of the hope is that others will see us doing something positive and be inspired to do the same in some unique way. Overall, the students seemed pleasantly surprised at how fun it was to still talk with their friends and get out and move while adventuring through the parks and leaving them better than before. It’s a nice feeling.

On December, 9th the Harpers Ferry kids headed to Willow Tree Manor, one of the area’s only nursing homes. The intention was just to spend time with some residents there, especially since some do not have many friends or family, and most don’t get frequent visits by those who care. That dynamic can be even harder around the holidays. The students read books, played a variety of games, decorated cards to give away, or just talked. Some of the girls really enjoyed doing nails for some of the women there, and others eventually played the all-time favorite of bingo side by side with residents.

Many of the students did well that day, and we were especially proud of Jacob, Aiden, and Zach. They played “Uno” with one of the residents with such patience and enthusiasm that it really made her day. This woman couldn’t talk and had a lot of trouble communicating in any way, and mostly she was just cheating and throwing cards down to the best of her ability. But the boys handled in so well, encouraged her participation, and talked with her the entire time. She was smiling quite a bit.

Aiden’s mom later told us about when Aiden came home that night: “He talked about the woman he played cards with all night and all of the other patients that he saw as well. He came home with such a sense of empathy, caring, and appreciation. He really really enjoyed the experience and I was actually trying to figure out a way he could go back!!!”

I’m sure that when we first headed to Willow Tree and walked through those doors that Aiden and the other students weren’t expecting to get much out of it. But that’s the amazing thing about service and civic engagement. We go in expecting to do something nice for others and then often find that the whole exchange and experience of it helped us to change in the process too.

(Josh Evans is the Program Assistant for FLOC’s Outdoor Education Center in WV) ​

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