Troubled Teens “Pay It Forward”

By Jennifer C. Jones
“Service is the rent we pay for living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.” ~ Marian Wright Edelman, Founder, Children’s Defense Fund

Discovery Ranch students are learning that service has benefits beyond what they may have ever before experienced.

Terri Miller, Girls Program Coordinator, says, “When they come here the focus is all on them.” But that focus soon shifts as students participate in a variety of volunteer projects such as planting trees, Sub for Santa, buddy soccer and baseball leagues for children with disabilities, and other service projects.
Miller says working, with no thought of “what’s in it for me” has been good for Discovery Ranch students.  The buddy sports league pairs a child with a mental or physical disability with a Discovery student.  They play side by side throughout the game, Discovery students teaching basic sports skills and cheering their buddies on.

“A lot of our kids have never been around children with mental or physical handicaps,” Miller notes. “But they jumped right in.  They’re always talking about their little buddy and they can’t wait to get to the next game.”

The athletes and their parents feel the same. “They love our kids. They come up afterwards and thank them.”

Discovery Ranch students spent hours laying sod and planting trees for a local city. Their reward? A Popsicle. Miller admits some kids hated the hard work in the hot sun but others walked away feeling like they had made the community better.

Ironically, this doing for others philosophy ends up helping the students with their own struggles. “There’s a therapeutic component to service,” says Dr. Wendy Turnbow, a Discovery Ranch therapist. “A lot of the kids feel ashamed and guilty because of their choices.  They may have had court-ordered service before but nothing that they wanted to do. This really helps them to be able to give back to the community.  It builds their self-esteem and helps them develop empathy for others. It helps them see what they’ve got and what they can do for others.”

Discovery Ranch administrators feel so strongly about community service each student must organize a “FAM” or “Forget About Me” project in order to graduate.

Miller provides the student with a list of organizations needing volunteer help, as well as a contact person.  But it’s up to the student to select the project that interests them most, contact the agency, and organize the service work.  The student is required to write a paper describing the project and how the work will be accomplished.  When the work is finished students must write about what they learned and what they might do differently.

“We’ve helped at nursing homes, stocked food at the food pantry, cleaned elderly people’s homes and yards, all kinds of things,” she says. “It really opens up their eyes.”

“Experiential philosophy is about doing hands on,” Dr. Turnbow states. “It’s putting into practice the things that you’re teaching them. The kids can talk the talk but putting them into action has so much more impact.”

 Perhaps one of the most heartwarming service projects was the recent Sub for Santa activity.

 “We asked parents to send one less gift and explain to their child why they were donating to our Sub for Santa instead,” Miller says. “With that money, we took our kids to Wal-Mart and went shopping.”

Each Discovery Ranch student was assigned a child to shop for. “We bought them clothes, toys and school supplies.  Then we let all of the kids at the ranch take the gifts to the home and sing Christmas carols to the family.”

One after another the students told staff, “Thank you so much for letting us do that. It was one of the best days I’ve had at the ranch. It was awesome!”

Turnbow says one of her students who participated in the activity had been struggling with depression.  “He came back and talked about how cool it was and how he knew the child would like his presents the best. The student knew he was doing something that had some importance.”

Miller notes, “If they’re taught to take some time and do something for someone else, hopefully they’ll leave here and want to continue doing that in their community. These kids are going to go out and make a difference.”


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