Joe Nathan column: Sandbagging and other summer service projects

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Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

Sandbagging on the St. Croix River is one of our family’s favorite memories. We joined with hundreds of others some years ago to help Afton, Minnesota, fend off the rising river waters. Our youngsters and I look back on the day as a time when we really made a difference and had fun doing so.

That’s a combination of benefits that families might consider for the summer.

What I’m urging in this column is that families, with their youngsters, make service to others part of their summer.

Lugging sandbags was hard but satisfying work. There were different tasks for different people, including filling bags with sand, wheeling the bags to the dike that some of us were building, and actually putting the sandbags in place. So it was ideal for people of different ages and strengths.

The sandbagging was an unexpected part of a service day that our synagogue had organized. Other projects had been planned, but first thing that morning, some of us heard a plea for help on the radio. We decided to add sandbagging as an option.

When a group of about 20 people arrived at the designated spot in Afton, a person who met us wondered where we had come from. When we explained, the Afton resident’s response was, “Thank God you’re here.” The town was desperate for help.

While some families were in Afton, others helped Habitat for Humanity build a house, some staffed a food kitchen for homeless people, and others delivered food and toys that had been previously collected to donate to a shelter for women and children. In each case, the partner organization briefly explained to the participating youngsters what the problem was that they were helping to solve and what specifically they would be doing to make a difference.

It was a long-remembered, very satisfying day where families worked together to serve others.

Another day, earlier this year, brought thousands of Minnesotans together to share their concerns about the country’s direction. We participated, along with some of our children and grandchildren. Many people brought youngsters, some of whom had painted colorful, creative signs.

But I want to be clear: I am saying a protest or demonstration, whether liberal or conservative, can be a very valuable experience for youngsters. Preparing them for the experience – and discussing how you’ll deal with critics and police directions – are important before taking youngsters to any march or rally.

From sandbagging to demonstrating, from helping build a house to feeding the hungry, there are countless ways to involve youngsters in helping others.

Still looking for more examples of what you and your youngsters might do? The website offers hundreds of service learning projects that young people have carried out.

One of the most important things parents and grandparents can do is model behavior we favor. Helping others makes young people feel productive and proud. Doing this as a family reminds young people that service and working for a better world are important family values.


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is director of the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]


2 Responses to Joe Nathan column: Sandbagging and other summer service projects

  1. Gary Gruber says:

    Parents modeling desirable behavior has lasting effects on kids long beyond school. Evidence suggests that this is one of the more powerful learning experiences children can do because of the see, hear, do sequence. Families often talk together whether around the forgotten dinner hour or in the car, have conversations about planning such events and the participation yields a higher level of buy in although parents may have to listen to some complaints such as “this is really hard work” or “I don’t want to” or “what do I get for doing it” and on and on. My suggestion is to ignore most of those and press on. I am ever amazed with the amount of time some parents spend trying to explain all the good reasons why a child should do something or not do something. I am of the old school that says, along with Nike, “Just do it.” Or, “try it, you might like it.” Or, simply on the negative side, “No, and which part of No do you not understand.”
    Kids need boundaries and they also need new horizons. Parents have this wonderful opportunity to expand the vision of kids beyond their digital screens by getting them involved in their communities. Just do it!
    Parent might also consider whether or not their children’s schools have meaningful service learning opportunities and choose a school that does. Here’s a helpful guide for parents, short, easy to use handbook:

  2. Tom King says:

    Brilliant idea! Kids need to be taught about service to others, too…..

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