Middle School Service Learning Project Success: Hands4Hope

Volunteering is a powerful way to help kids better understand their community and appreciate the importance of giving back.

Moreover, what many young teens find satisfying about community service is feeling the tangible difference they are making through their effort and initiatives. This sense of agency can help increase a child’s confidence and motivation for taking on new responsibilities.

Hands4Hope: A Case Study

At Rolling Hills Middle School in El Dorado Hills, California, an unexpected mix of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders are celebrating the success of their First Annual Spring Carnival Sock Drive.

The students are middle school members of Hands4Hope, a service learning and outreach nonprofit that empowers students to develop their own fundraising projects with the aim of benefiting those struggling in the greater community. In addition to reflecting on their event, the group is meeting to review its best practices.

Kenzie Misso, eighth grader and club president, draws two columns on the whiteboard and titles them “Well” and “Improvement.” The group members stop giggling and commence a decidedly grown-up discussion.

“So how much did we collect?” Kenzi asks.

One of the students reads her notes: “We collected 236 pairs of socks. Assuming $1.50 per sock, plus tax, that’s just almost $400 in value. The total value of all the contributions was just under $800. After expenses for the carnival, we have a monetary profit of $208.27.”

The group then discusses the most successful elements of the project: extending advertising efforts to a nearby elementary school, supporting a popular face painting booth for younger children, and continuing a highly successful mouse-hole game created by some of the boys from recycled materials.

Improvements for next year include limiting students to only winning one soda at the “Win a 2-liter soda” game so older kids could spread out to other parts of the fair.

All in all, the group is proud of what it has accomplished.

Student Voices

Taylor Smith began participating in Hands4Hope in the fourth grade and has loved her experience. “We get to work on much bigger projects in middle school. I love making a difference, but it’s also even more fun because we get to decide what we want to do.”

Jack Dengler and Brayden Kono also started in fourth grade. They liked it so much, they convinced more of their buddies to join over the years. “I really like working together with my friends,” says Brayden.

“We don’t just talk about stuff, we do a lot of projects,” says Jack.

Another friend, and the secretary of the club, Nick Snyder adds, “I feel like an hour goes by so fast when you’re on a project. The Super Bowl Bake Sale project was intense. We got a lot of business that day.”

The Rolling Hills Club has raised thousands of dollars over the last few years through a variety of projects, including clothing drives, car washes, hot chocolate sales, and now a spring carnival. They’ve delivered toys to patients in children’s hospitals and assisted families in housing shelters. The students especially enjoy delivering their efforts in person and interacting with people they want to help.

“I admit,” says Jacob Kim, “I first got into the club to be with my friends. But you feel really good when you can help people and let them know that they matter.”

Kenzie, adds, “I really love this club. I especially like meeting and helping kids — they can’t help what their situation is. I had a realistic view that there was a need, but the sheer quantity of it really surprised me.”

Thoughts from the Founder

Founder Jennifer Bassett says that, for her, the biggest reward of Hands4Hope is showing young people what a huge impact their own ideas can have on the world around them. “When I ask the kids why they joined the club, the biggest response I get is ‘because we get to make the decisions.’ I don’t think kids this age have a lot of opportunity to do that yet. I see a lot of shy kids come into their own as thinkers and leaders in this club.”

“When we first started Hands4Hope, I didn’t realize that we were forming a service learning opportunity. But this is service learning in its purest form. Students incorporate math, communication, problem solving, and social studies skills to solve real-world problems — and they have fun doing it.”

Bassett, whose father served in the Marines, grew up overseas. She learned from her family and her early travels to respect cultural and socioeconomic differences in others. She started Hands4Hope because she wanted to share this awareness with her sons, who are growing up in a relatively sheltered suburban environment.

“I wanted them to see how fortunate they are, that this is not necessarily the way that all of America lives. I wanted them to grow up aware and engage respectfully with people from all backgrounds and economic situations.”

Since 2008, Hands4Hope, which started with three teams (elementary, middle, and high school) in El Dorado Hills, has expanded to more than 10 schools across the region, with over 1,400 youth volunteers at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.

Advice for Parents

Bassett’s advice for creating a service learning organization is to do research and see if something has been established in your area. “Team up — it takes a lot of work and there are finite resources to support youth organizations. If there is not an organization that works for you, team up with friends, reach out to schools, the district, and agencies to see where the interests are. Reach out to the business community to find out if it is something they are willing to support. Have meetings with parents and get feedback. But especially get feedback from kids — kids having passion for the cause, and where their passion is, really matters.”

Bassett also recommends holding interest meetings specifically for students. “I don’t think we give kids enough credit sometimes. We have to pull back as adults and allow them to offer their insight on what they find meaningful. I was surprised when one of our young outreach teams took part in a homeless outreach and one of the students noticed that many of the people had pets. They saw how important the pets were to the well-being of those we were serving. When the kids discovered that sometimes people who become homeless also lose their pets because they cannot afford the registration fees, they immediately wanted to raise money to help fund pet registrations and supplies for homeless and disadvantaged individuals and families. I never would have thought of that.”

Resources on the Benefits of Service Learning

Vanderbuilt University Center for Teaching Community Engagement Guide

Corporation for National and Community Service

The National Youth Leadership Council Blog

The Youth Development Network

YMCA Service Learning Resources

To find volunteer opportunities, visit Volunteer Match. For older students, check out Noodle's community service guide for busy high schoolers.