A quote from Mahatma Gandhi may have explained it most clearly: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
That’s what the founders of a Monterey-based nonprofit believe, and they are putting their theories about self-esteem based on community service to the test at Carmel Valley High and other local public and private schools.
Longtime local and Stevenson School graduate Brian Bajari, along with fellow RLS alum John Guido, has developed a program he calls the Spero Challenge (“spero” means “I hope” in Latin), which helps young people identify problems in their communities and brainstorm solutions.
A pair of Carmel High teens, for example, came up with Music Beyond Borders, a plan to donate musical instruments to local elementary schools that might not be able to afford them and instruction for students who might want to learn, and to develop an outreach program “to inspire the love of music.” In their pitch video, seniors Olive Deluca and Aaron Georis ask people to donate instruments or money to help “Music shouldn’t be a privilege,” Georis says in the video.
Bajari said Carmel High students are already working on programs they created, like Mentor Up, with “students mentoring the elderly on tech — which of course will generate mentoring from the elderly to the students, as well;” Sports Gear for Kids, with students giving unused sports equipment to children who can’t get it on their own; and Mental Wellness for Teens, which aims to address “the huge lack of access for mental health therapy for adolescents by having students provide free mental wellness groups and sessions with therapists.”
A plan and a budget
Those efforts and others grew from workshops organized by Spero. After identifying problems and their possible solutions, the kids develop a business plan and budget, and apply to the nonprofit for funding and mentoring. And when their work is complete, the adults celebrate with the students, acknowledging their creativity and initiative to “reinforce the important role of being hope builders and social changers in their community.”
And even though Bajari started the Spero Challenge less than eight months ago, the effort is already showing benefits. At Carmel Valley High School — a school for students who haven’t succeeded at conventional high schools — students organized a cleanup day in Cachagua last spring, including figuring out the logistics of where, when and how, and developing a plan and a budget.
“Many of these kids are from Cachagua,” Bajari said, and sometimes have been labeled troublemakers.
“It was remarkable to see these students really take on their cleanup project,”
As the kids worked together to haul refuse from the road sides out and throw it into trucks for trips to the dump, residents came around to ask what they were doing, according to Bajari — which created positive PR for the kids in their own neighborhood.
Brenda Buran, an English teacher at CVHS, worked with math teacher Jeff Schatz and principal Tom Parry to shift their teaching methods at the small school on Schulte Road.
“We’re following a model of learning that’s called, ‘Big Picture Learning,’” which is being used at schools like theirs throughout the country, she said. “It really emphasizes getting students out into the community in a variety of internships and community service projects.”
That way, the teens are working on issues that interest them and are “learning about what they want to learn about,” while the teachers continue to ensure they meet academic competency levels set by the state. For example, the students have to read, but the teachers don’t assign specific books.
Schatz said the change came about as they got together and looked at ways to address students’ needs, since they obviously hadn’t thrived in the conventional high-school setting. “We all came together to think about how can we get students a little more engaged,” he said.
Bajari said Carmel Valley High students have risen to the challenge well, with four new Spero Challenge projects in the works.
And the seventh graders at All Saints’ Day School, led by teacher Becky Rheim (another Stevenson graduate) are working on some initiatives, too. Bajari and others at Spero said they “can already see this school is setting up their students to be future leaders.”
The nonprofit is seeking donations and mentors to help in its goal to engage 2,500 kids in 500 community service projects throughout Monterey County during the current school year, with each student contributing 20 hours, and mentors averaging five hours per project.
“This translates to over 50,000 hours — or nearly six years of service — in only one year,” according to the group, which can be found at www.sperochallenge.com.