The Girls’ School of Austin shares advice for getting involved in service projects.

By Courtney Runn, Photos courtesy of The Girls’ School, Susie Gravette and Maya Payne Smart. 

At age ten, Maggie Gravette is a budding environmentalist. She pioneered a composting project in her fourth-grade class, giving up recess to compost with her friends. At lunch, they make sure their classmates throw wrappers in the correct bin and she can spit out recycling rules faster than a Whole Foods employee.

While she grew up participating in service projects with her family, Gravette’s school pushed her to take responsibility for philanthropy.

The Girls’ School of Austin, a private all-girls elementary and middle school in West Austin, celebrated its 15th anniversary this year with a special philanthropic challenge. It was dubbed the 15 Years, 15 Hours Challenge, and the school asked every student to complete 15 hours of community service outside of school hours.

When Gravette first heard about the challenge, she remembers thinking, “I’m probably going to end up getting more hours than my sisters.” She was correct. She beat her two sisters, who also attend the school—though, to be fair, they both completed lots of hours—and she was named a Community Superhero for going above and beyond, providing 31 total hours of service. Altogether, the school logged 1,797 hours and every student completed at least two hours of service.

While this was the first challenge of its kind at the school, philanthropy has always been a core value. Shanna Prewitt-Hines, director of admissions, says the school places a high value on helping girls find their passions and explore them inside and outside the classroom. Several years ago, they added a service component to the curriculum to help girls connect what they’re learning in school with what’s happening in the world.

As Prewitt-Hines reflected on the challenge, her eyes filled with tears. All year long, she sat with girls during lunch to help them connect projects to their passions, and every day, girls ran up to her, eager to share their latest service experiences. She had the privilege of witnessing what many teachers and administrators dream of: students excited to transfer classroom learning to real-world impact.

Students, parents and staff from The Girls’ School of Austin sat down with Austin Woman to share advice for helping your kids care about philanthropy.

Maggie and Janie Gravette helping at Hope Food Pantry.

Start the conversation.

Prewitt-Hines says the most important step is simply starting a conversation with your kids. Talk about philanthropy at home and make it a normal part of your conversations and routines. Encourage your kids to ask questions and share what they’re thinking too. She remembers overhearing girls comparing hours and sharing ideas for more service opportunities all year long.

“[Service] became a constant conversation on campus,” she says.

Be a role model.

The entire staff at the school also participated in the challenge. The school provided opportunities for teachers and encouraged them to serve on their own. Some teachers even participated with their students. If you want to see your kids develop a heart for philanthropy, model what that looks like and make it a priority in your personal schedule.

Let your kids take ownership.

Ellie Wilk, a rising fourth-grader, participated in projects throughout the year. She picked fruits and vegetables at Mobile Loaves & Fishes’ Community First Village, prepared meals at a food shelter, ran a lemonade stand to raise money for Hurricane Harvey victims and more. Her mom, Hayley Wilk, says while parents helped organize activities, the kids were the ones doing all the work. Don’t underestimate your child’s ability to serve. Let her take ownership of her service by picking her own projects and doing the work.

Zora Smart serving at the Ronald McDonald House.

Don’t let age be an obstacle.

At The Girls’ School of Austin, all students participated in the challenge, even the kindergarteners. Zora Smart, a rising first-grader, logged at least 15 hours. She participated in a variety of projects throughout the year, from serving in a Ronald McDonald House to singing Christmas carols at a nursing home with her Daisy Girl Scout troop.

“Volunteering gives even the youngest children a sense that they can help others and that they are a part of a community,” says Maya Smart, her mom.

“I had a lot of fun doing my service hours,” Zora Smart says. “I think it’s really important to help other people, no matter how old they are or how young they are.”

Pick a theme.

At The Girls’ School of Austin, every grade focuses on one service project. At the beginning of the year, Prewitt-Hines says teachers pick a theme then develop curriculum to provide real-world service opportunities. In Kindergarten, students learn about celebrating holidays throughout the world and partner with Operation Blue Santa to donate gifts to underprivileged children. In second grade, girls focus on reading skills and have the opportunity to visit a bilingual preschool. During the 15 Years, 15 Hours challenge, a third-grade class chose to raise money for Indian reservations after studying the culture of Native Americans in class.

One student drew pet portraits to raise money for Austin Pets Alive.

If picking a particular nonprofit overwhelms you, focus on one theme or sector, like literacy or food insecurity. Discuss and study this issue as a family then find opportunities to give back.

Help your kids discover their passions.

Prewitt-Hines helped girls find the right projects by discussing their passions. One student used her artistic talents to draw portraits of pets to raise money for Austin Pets Alive. What do your kids love to do? What do they get excited about? Find projects that naturally complement your kids’ strengths and passions.

Serve together.

Find projects for the whole family. Janie Gravette, Maggie Gravette’s younger sister, says her favorite project was making duct-tape wallets with her dad. She also served at a food pantry with her grandmother and participated in projects with her sisters too. Invite your friends and neighbors to join you to make it a community effort.


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