Students, staff and parents at Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson this year are celebrating 40 years of the school providing continuous service to the community, though are doing so in a low-key fashion.
There will be no ceremony to mark the occasion. Instead, the students will continue to provide community service as part of the school’s “way of life,” said headmistress, Sister Patricia McCarron.
The all-girls Catholic school was founded in 1873 by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, a worldwide religious institute of more than 2,500 Roman Catholic sisters. Service to the community has been part of its curriculum since 1975, while the school’s longest-running continuous service project, which is known as Dinner with the Elderly, has existed since 1978. Each May the school community designates a day — usually before Mother’s Day — —in which it hosts 200 low-income seniors from area churches for a Sunday afternoon turkey dinner.
“Our service program is just an awesome opportunity for our girls to respond to the gospel, to engage with others and really changes their outlook on the world,” McCarron said.
The school offers voluntary service opportunities for all its students, though service hours become mandatory in the students’ sophomore year.
Sophomores, juniors and seniors are required to log at least 20 hours of community service each school year as part of their graduation requirements, which they earn in what McCarron describes as the longest continuously-running service requirement of private schools in the Baltimore area.
The school offers three after-school service programs and one weekend service activity each week and has an endowment fund to help students pay for service-oriented trips if personal fundraising for programs outside of the school falls short.
Past long-distance trips have included visits to Panama to help build recreation centers and an annual trip to help a Mississippi chapter of Habitat for Humanity build homes.
Such experiences ensure that students learn to make community service a part of their lives after they leave the school, according to Notre Dame director of service, Steve Pomplon.
“Our philosophy is geared toward teaching service as a lifestyle,” Pomplon said. “We want students to continue [serving] without being compelled.”
Christa Campbell, of Sparks, a Notre Dame senior, first became involved in community service as a sophomore at the school’s Camp Umoja, a summer camp offered to Baltimore City students who live in public housing. Notre Dame Prep has operated the camp for 33 years. It also operates Club Umoja, which hosts after-school tutoring during the school year.
“Umoja” is the Swahili word for unity. A similar program, called Rafiki, named after the Swahili word for friend, hosts women with Down syndrome at the school for crafting and other activities after school.
Christa saw the camper with whom she was paired grow during the summer camp, she said, adding that, as a result of the experience, she is now thinking of going into nursing, so that she can help others.
In the spring, she will take a week-long trip to Ecuador sponsored by Notre Dame to visit after-school centers and medical centers as part of a cultural exchange and service project.
“Even if you can’t change the lives of the world, you can make a small difference,” Christa said.
Junior Maya Babu and freshman Mary Beth Novotny, both of Towson, also participated in Camp Umoja.
“Most of us don’t face the same issues as the Camp Umoja kids or Rafiki women face, but it’s important for us to try and make an impact,” Maya said.
The service program offers an added benefit of making the girls more well-rounded, Pomplon said.
“We want students to see other realities and meet people from other realities and be empowered through those relationships,” added Pomplon, who who has taught religious education at Notre Dame for 11 years. “Most students come to realize education is a privilege and that it’s OK to be uncomfortable because it makes the students better.”
Last school year, Pomplon launched an effort to tie in what students were learning in their classes to service by encouraging faculty members to incorporate service projects into their lessons.
Fourteen students participated in projects combining history lessons with service projects at two Baltimore-based nonprofits during the 2016-17 school year.
The students helped lawyers with research to build cases for women at Asylee Women Enterprises, which provides transitional housing, companionship and community to female asylum seekers in northeast Baltimore.
They also offered homework help to students at Moravia Park Elementary School, in Baltimore, as part of a program of the Refugee Youth Project, an after-school initiative run by Baltimore City Community College for refugee students.
This year, faculty at Notre Dame are working to incorporate service projects into Advanced Placement art classes.
“We want it to be more transformative for participants and have students think: What can they do to stay engaged?” Pomplon said.