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Educating for Service

Father BillThe divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots” within our local communities and around the world has never been so great as it is today. Whether educationally, economically, digitally, or in access to information, communications and services, the rich and powerful are leaving the majority of their fellow human beings behind. The problem is enormous and seemingly insurmountable – unless we start small and in our own backyard.

Since 1993, Nativity Jesuit Middle School has been educating Hispanic youth for Christian leadership and service on Milwaukee’s near south side. Nativity forms 53 sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade boys into leaders for tomorrow by showing them what service is today.

In its unique, nearly year-round program, Nativity helps low-income students from mostly first-generation Latino families experience firsthand the generosity of thousands of volunteers and benefactors. They benefit from an extended school day, evening study halls to master their homework and a five-week residential summer camp with academic classes six mornings a week in northern Wisconsin.

Although families pay tuition, Nativity depends nearly totally on private fundraising to operate annually. But writing a check, while necessary, is not sufficient for Nativity to continue. We rely on hundreds of local college students, adults and local organizations to model what “giving back to the community” can mean.

Next May, Nativity’s first class, which entered in 1996, will graduate from colleges and universities across the state. Fully 100 percent of Nativity’s graduates of the past four years are still in high school and nearly all of them are still being mentored by the adults who began with them in their freshman year. The pipeline is being filled. Soon Nativity’s long-range goal of turning out a steady stream of college-educated leaders will begin. But that will accomplish only part of Nativity’s mission. How do we teach for service?

Part of teaching is modeling. By college graduation, “Juan” or “Miguel” will have personally known scores of citizens who have spent countless hours coaching him in sports and after-school activities, tutoring him in evening study halls, accompanying him at summer camp or walking with him as his mentor throughout his high school years.

Yet Nativity believes its students learn not only from the example of others, but also by doing what others model for them. Therefore, throughout the middle school years, Nativity students do service work here in the community at day care centers and senior citizens’ residences, serve meals to street people and clean up the neighborhood. If our students are to serve others, we cannot wait until they graduate from college and then say, “Go serve.” They must learn it by serving all along the way.

Service should be included in everyone’s schedule, busy as we are. Already our students are finding out that serving others helps them grow in compassion and understanding and puts academic learning into a much more practical context. And, many students find that it feels good to be helpful to others, that they can indeed make a difference in small but significant ways in their world. Now that is empowerment.

Service is leadership. Service is learning. Service can begin to close gaps between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” but it has to be modeled by someone and then practiced by all. Education means “to lead out.” We all need role models, but then we must follow their lead. Such steps will begin to bridge the gap that separates too many of us. Imagine the distance we could travel if we all did our part.

Bill Johnson, S.J.
President, Nativity Jesuit Middle School
Milwaukee, WI