A week before final exams, about 50 students at TMI Episcopal are invited to come up front during daily chapel to be recognized for summer plans that involve community service–volunteering as a camp counselor, in an animal shelter, at a food bank, on church mission trips and in many other settings.
“We are all gathered here as members of the TMI family, bound together by our common identity as servant leaders,” says The Rev. Nathan Bostian, the school’s chaplain, “to go forth from here to serve others in our communities, and around the world.” The students receive blessings on their work, from Father Nate and through the responsorial prayers of the rest of the student body and faculty.
It’s a commissioning ceremony, meant to thank those who are making service part of their summer vacation and to inspire others. For all of the students present, it’s the culmination of a year of exposure to the notion of compassionate assistance.
Service is built into the school’s mission statement: “TMI provides an exceptional education with values based on the teachings of Jesus Christ that challenge motivated students to develop their full potential in service and leadership.”
Accordingly, volunteering is a way of life at the 125-year-old Episcopal school in San Antonio, Texas. At TMI, community service is a co-curricular activity. Every one of the school’s 460 students in grades six through 12 participates, fulfilling varying requirements. Sixth graders start with eight service hours, adding one hour each in seventh and eighth grade. Upper School (grades nine through 12) students all perform at least 12 hours.
Members of the National Junior Honor Society and the National Honor Society have requirements for additional hours. Students who are members of TMI’s award-winning, optional Corps of Cadets plan and execute an annual Service Learning Project, mandated by Army JROTC. Student Council officers in both Middle and Upper School enlist the help of other students in projects of their own, and the whole school participates in an Adopt a Needy Family drive to meet the household needs of nearly 50 low-income families during the winter holiday season. Seventh-grade Life Science classes volunteer as part of their coursework to tend the school garden – planting, weeding, harvesting with the help of parents from the school’s Family Association.
All TMI students are automatically members of TMI’s chapter of Interact, the Rotary-sponsored youth community-service organization, and may choose to take part in any of the club’s frequent activities, which may include a Habitat for Humanity build, serving dinner to families of seriously ill children at a Ronald McDonald House or packing Easter dinners at a local aid agency for needy families.
Interact’s projects are generally student-led, with its elected officers and other active members proposing the benefiting organizations and planning the projects. As the club’s faculty sponsor, Associate Chaplain Daniel Forman says, “I try to make sure its interests remain fluid from year to year, according to the leadership we have within the organization.” Communication and access are important for healthy participation; upcoming projects are publicized through email, chapel announcements and student word-of-mouth. Scheduled transportation ensures that nearly every student would be able to attend, if they don’t have a conflict with other commitments.
Requiring service hours invites students not familiar with community service to try it out in a safe, comfortable context, with friends and teachers present. “There are a select few students who strongly feel convicted about wanting to serve others, not due to personal gain or hour requirements,” says Forman, but the rest might need encouragement to start on a path of service.
Not only Interact and the national honor societies but many other TMI student organizations choose to make community service part of their program. Last year, the TMI varsity cheer squad packed toiletries for survivors of Hurricane Harvey, and the Spanish Club sold fair-trade bracelets made by a Central American women’s collective. Cadets and others collected prom wear and other gently used clothing for needy youth, and through the year, all students were encouraged to contribute $5 for the privilege of “dress-down” (no uniforms) days to benefit a variety of causes led by Interact and other groups.
“As a faith-based school, we consider community service a vital part of our mission,” said the Rev. Scott J. Brown, TMI’s headmaster and an Episcopal priest. “We’re proud of the variety of projects and organizations our students help; they find so many ways to give back to the community. One of our goals is to raise up servant leaders – people who will take the lead in making a difference in their community. We believe their experience at TMI will be the foundation of a lifelong desire to help others.”
Service can be part of any one of the Four Pillars of a TMI education – Academics, Athletics, Military/Leadership and Spirituality. TMI students have served as reading buddies to students in a Title I elementary school, played dodgeball with wounded warriors, spruced up a Veterans Administration family guest house and improved a playground at a neighboring church.
Residential Life (boarding) students have ample opportunities to take part in these projects and some of their own. “We are fortunate in that we have a team of 20 dorm parents who work in teams at the weekend with our boarders,” says TMI Director of Residential Life Clive Hamilton. “Our weekend teams organize community-service events as part of their weekend activities.” Transportation and supervision is provided for all students who take part in school-sponsored service project. Boarders also play a big role in the school’s annual Intercultural Dinner, volunteering to prepare the Refectory and performing at the event.
Outside of school, TMI students also receive credit for service projects done through Scouting – including projects for the Boy Scout Eagle rank and Girl Scout Gold Award – their churches or with their families. Last year, 30 TMI Upper School students earned President’s Volunteer Service awards, and in previous years, students have been honored with Prudential Spirit of Community awards on the national and state level.
During the 2017-2018 school year, the total number of community-service hours recorded by TMI students was 14,485 – nearly three times the required number. While the requirement was only extended to middle school a few years ago, a little more than 100 students in sixth through eighth grades accounted for 1,900 of those hours.
“Community matters tremendously as pre-teens and young teens are learning to grapple with their own identity and their place in the world around them,” says Victoria Banks, TMI’s Middle School Division Head. “When middle schoolers learn the value of service early, it’s part of whole-child learning, educating them to live a productive life within society. Giving and receiving support creates a healthy community.”
“The younger we start instilling the values of service, the greater the opportunity for students to graduate with open hearts and minds, and hands that are ready to serve.”
Director of News and Information, TMI