Make community service part of the summer

By Joe Nathan 

Guest Columnist


One of my favorite family memories is sandbagging by the St. Croix River with two of our children. It comes to mind as we enter summer and the 4th of July holiday – a holiday celebrating the sacrifice and selflessness of others.

One of the most important things a family can do together this summer is help youngsters continue this tradition. Service should be a part of summer.

One of the people who knows most about this is Minnesotan Jim Kielsmeier. Since returning from military duty in Korea, he has spent decades promoting youth leadership, service and learning. He’s mentored many educators and youth workers in the U.S. and other countries. For decades, he directed the National Youth Leadership Forum, which encouraged service learning in and outside of schools.

During a recent phone call, he told me, “You teach more clearly what you do with your children than what you dictate to your children.” Over the years, he’s worked with his family to plant trees, plant and tend a garden that produced food that was contributed to food shelves, and work on environmental restoration.

Kielsmeier says these experiences help young people develop a “capacity to care.” They help young people develop perspective on their lives and a belief that they can, and should, make a difference with other people. And often, these experiences are fun.

I remember a spring Sunday when a group of us decided to take our youngsters to help with sandbagging in Afton. The town was facing a major flood from the St. Croix River. We pulled up to the flood control headquarters with about 20 adults and youngsters. The person in charge greeted us with: “Thank God you’ve come. We need you badly.” We spent several hours sandbagging. Our children still talk about how needed they felt and how satisfying that morning was, though it happened more than 20 years ago.

We’ve done other things together, like serving meals at a food shelter. We’ve tried to model that one of our family’s values is service. We’ve helped others. When there was a fire at our home many years ago, people helped us. That was just one of many times when others helped us.

One of the best sources of possible service projects is the website, At the top of the website’s home page, there’s a link to “Fill your summer with random acts of kindness.”

For example:

– Help organize and cleanup your block or neighborhood.

– Help recent immigrants learn to speak or read English.

– Collect your family’s history.

– Cut the grass or go to the store for an elderly neighbor who’s not very mobile.

– Connect with a group like Habitat for Humanity and help build a house.

The possibilities are endless. And young people learn quickly that you give yourself a present when you give to others.

The What Kids Can Do website quotes noted author Maya Angelou, who recently died. She wrote, “The best part of life is not just surviving, but thriving with passion and compassion and humor and style and generosity and kindness.” Summer is a great time for families to help youngsters learn how true that is.


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