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Reaching out to the margins makes better students

Joe Alexander and Janelle Doohan

Community-minded: Assistant principal for religious education at Aquinas College, Ashmore, Joe Alexander with APRE at Mt Maria College, Petrie, Janelle Doohan at the Transforming Service conference in Brisbane. Photos: Emilie Ng

SCHOOLS that offer programs to visit the elderly or feed the hungry could help young adults become more compassionate as well as improve academically. 

Queensland-born Christian Brother Damien Price said at a recent ecumenical education conference that educational programs calling students “to the edge” taught empathy and compassion.

The method, which Br Price referred to as service learning, was also a command from Pope Francis.

“It’s basically where young people learn through doing and through relationships with people and groups on the edge, whether the elderly, the homeless, or refugees, or the environment,” he said.

“Pope Francis has called us to the edge; that’s where Jesus spent all his time.”

Students at Mt Maria College in Petrie have adopted service learning in their agricultural studies department’s animal care program.

The students share their love for animals with the local nursing home as a regular surprise for the residents.

Assistant principal for religious education Janelle Doohan said common love of animals helped students build a connection and willingness with a group they might not have visited on their own accord.

“I think that feeling that you’ve got something you can share, whether young or old, in common with someone has built a sense of confidence in the younger students and a willingness to go somewhere they normally wouldn’t want to go,” Mrs Doohan said.

Students at Aquinas College, Ashmore, have reached out to the Gold Coast’s homeless community by making sleeping bags for their local St Vincent de Paul Society conference.

The school is also organising a sleepout for students to experience being homeless later in the year.

Br Price, who returned to Brisbane last Christmas after serving in Melbourne for the past seven years, is no stranger to the invaluable effects of service learning activities.

Br Price

Br Damien Price: “Pope Francis has called us to the edge; that’s where Jesus spent all his time.”

As the brainchild of respite holiday experience Edmund Rice Camps and co-founder of Eddy’s Van, and with 30 years’ teaching experience under his belt, he knows how service learning emphasises education beyond the textbooks.

Speaking at the Transforming Service conference in Brisbane, Br Price also shared the “potential danger” of using service learning as a moral or charitable “checklist”.

“There’s all sorts of psychological dangers if it’s not done well – not only that you can be very patronising, demeaning, so you’re not respectful of the other,” he said. 

When the experience was done well, it can help improve students’ academic progress – “because a bi-product of all this beautiful service is you learn lateral thinking skills”, Br Price said. 

“You get more creative in your problem-solving,” he said.

Representatives from Brisbane Catholic Education schools attended the conference as well as attendees from Anglican, Uniting and Lutheran schools.


Written by: Emilie Ng
Catholic Church Insurance

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