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placeholder June 13, 2016   •   VOL. 54, NO. 11   •   Oakland, CA
Graduation 2016

Gavin Hill collects food on pickup day for the Operation Dignity Canned Food Drive in Alameda, one of the projects completed by students in the Justice and Peace class at St. Joseph Notre Dame High School.

In service, SJND students encouraged
to follow their passion

When Anna Victoria Serbin needed to do an assignment for her Justice and Peace class, the junior at St. Joseph Notre Dame High School in Alameda knew what she was called to do.

Teacher Jason Shelton encourages students in the course to follow their passion in completing the "Inspired by a Saint project."

Anna Victoria set out to collect books for the Books for Africa program.

"I came from Brazil in 2007. I had never been to a library. I went to the library once or twice a week while I was learning English," she said, in flawless English.

"I was lucky. Children in Africa are not as lucky."

Anna Victoria set a goal of 100 books.

"I got 634," she said.

Success did not come on the first try, she said. After not collecting many books in her own neighborhood, she turned to her elementary school, St. John the Baptist in San Lorenzo.

With help from three volunteers — the assignment requires collaboration and cooperation — she presented her project to the school and set collection dates. With the help of her volunteers, she packed the books into large containers to be sent to the Georgia-based nonprofit Books for Africa.

To help with the shipping costs, she sold muffins and chocolates.

In the course, which Shelton has taught for four of his nine years at St. Joseph Notre Dame, students learn about the issues, and the later, Anna Victoria said, "we learn how to apply ourselves to try to make a difference."

In addition to reporting on the project, students must all report on a saint. Anna Victoria chose St. Pope John Paul II. "In his life he focused on youth," she said. He created World Youth Day and he listened to young people. The Church was open to the suggestions of young people."

This might not be the last time the student collects books. "I'm hoping to do Books for Africa next year," she said.

That's just what Shelton would like to see happen. The project, which is separate from the school's service learning program, is designed to let the students create a project that speaks to and for them.

"Each of us has different gifts, different talents and different passions," Shelton told his students, challenging them to discover how to turn that passion and "put it toward good work."

A video game enthusiast in a previous year set up a tournament with a modest entry fee; the $300 in proceeds from that went to a nonprofit.

"One of the things that keeps young people from doing something," he said, is that they think, "what difference can I make."

He acknowledged that "it's hard, it's boring it can be sad," but when students find "something they're really passionate about, they'll hang onto it."

Shelton, 42, joined the Marine Corps right out of high school. In his six years of service, he participated in various philanthropy projects in Thailand and Korea. Later he studied philosophy — his degrees are from Saint Mary's College of California and the University of San Francisco — and became a Catholic convert in 2005. "I read about St. Augustine and St. Francis of Assisi and thought about worship through service," he said.

In the end, Shelton said, the students learn more than can be added up in cans of food or pounds of clothing. They have learned what he hopes will become a lifelong habit. "It's amazing seeing the pure joy and the light in their faces," he said.

Emily Prislin's project is an example of that. She and two classmates put 200 fliers on neighbors' doors in the three Alameda neighborhoods — Gold Coast, Fernside and Bay Farm — seeking canned goods for Operation Dignity, an Oakland program that provides food for veterans and their families. The fliers gave a date the students would return to collect donations.

"We knocked on doors," she said. "We talked to our neighbors." Some neighbors brought food to the students' doorsteps, too. "We ended up with 207 canned goods," she said.

When she delivered the canned goods, she found, "If we'd brought 10, they'd be just as happy as if we'd brought 200."

It's a lesson she will carry with her: "You don't have to do extravagant projects all the time," she said.

She said she plans "to continue to do little things."
And, she said, it helps to do that with friends.

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