Inspired to Serve

St. Mary’s Incorporates Service-Learning Across Campus

Since 1847, St. Mary’s has equipped girls with the skills to make the world a better place. Our girls learn to be leaders in the classroom and the community. Across campus, the curriculum integrates community service in meaningful ways. The goal of service-learning is to educate students on their community, as well as the needs of their community and how to address them.

On North Campus, that starts with St. Mary’s signature education program, the Bridge to Caring. The eight characteristics that comprise the Bridge to Caring are “the fabric of what we do,” shared North Campus Chaplain Mary Henry Thompson. Each month, curriculum and chapel talks focus on one of the traits: respect, responsibility, thankfulness, kindness, self-control, honesty, courage, and cooperation.

Thompson also incorporates the Bridge to Caring in her religion classes and the 5th-grade course Finding Your Voice. From art to counseling to science, teachers in both the ECC and Lower Schools reinforce the Bridge to Caring in their classrooms.

Thompson also works with Lower School teachers to organize service projects for their classes. Past projects have benefited various local organizations, including MIFA, St. Jude, and the Humane Society. This fall, 5th-grade students partnered with the Mid-South Food Bank to organize a food drive.

“The 5th graders steered that whole project,” Thompson said. “They began to understand that you can’t just decide to you’re going to do a food drive. They learned the broad scope of what it takes to do a project like that, from figuring out what items to collect to sharing information with the campus community.”

Thompson is most proud of how the students demonstrate a clear understanding of the Bridge to Caring traits and incorporate them into their daily lives at school and home. The students get excited about nominating and awarding each other the Caring Turkey award, given each week to a student for an act of kindness or service. Recently, the 5th-grade students worked with Counselor Lauren Mitchell to create the Pillars of St. Mary’s award to recognize faculty and staff members who embody the eight character traits.

“At a young age, the girls understand how they can positively impact those around them, which is what service is all about,” added Thompson.

In Middle School, the curriculum expands on the Bridge to Caring in a service-focused course for the 7th-grade, Community Connections. Led by Middle School Counselor Andrea Peredo, the class partners with MIFA, a local nonprofit that supports vulnerable seniors and families. Students learn about the challenges facing the Memphis area, such as homelessness, food insecurity, and health inequity, and how MIFA works to address these issues. Students hear from leaders at MIFA, including the President & CEO, Vice President of Family Programs, and Chief Development Officer. The students also participate in service projects like volunteering for MIFA’s Meals on Wheels program and organizing donation drives. The 7th-grade students get excited about managing the projects and encouraging 6th- and 8th-grade students to participate.

Peredo wants the students to gain a greater understanding of why they should serve others and what it means to serve others effectively.

“I hope the students develop a better understanding of the needs of the Memphis community, and that within Memphis, there are multiple communities with differing needs,” said Peredo. “There are so many ways you can serve. It doesn’t necessarily just mean donating money or volunteering at a food bank. Effective service comes out of knowing what the need is.”

In the Upper School, service is a regular part of student life. Through clubs, organizations, and extracurricular activities, students constantly engage with the community and demonstrate a commitment to serving. The quintessential example of this is the St. Mary’s Community Fund (SMCF), a student-led, grant-making organization, established in 1998.

The mission of SMCF is to “educate young women about the importance of philanthropy through hands-on community service, fundraising, and grant-making.” In its first year, the members raised $2,000 and awarded grants to the Exchange Club and Hope House. Since then, SMCF has raised approximately $600,000, benefiting over 50 organizations. The students are responsible for raising money and overseeing the entire grant process. From reviewing applications to site visits, the SMCF members get an in-depth look at the work of the organizations across the city and what it takes to operate and fund a nonprofit organization.

“Most of our members come to SMCF with a sense of responsibility to give back to their community,” shared Director of SMCF Susan Whitten Graber ’86. Graber, who has been the SMCF sponsor since 2012, hopes SMCF members develop a “sense of agency in running the organization.” She ensures that the SMCF is truly student-led. “I want them to generate their own ideas about how to raise money and whom they believe it is important to fund. I am just there to help with resources and as a sounding board.”

Through SMCF, I’ve learned so many important life skills,” said senior Astrid Balink. “I’ve learned to be a leader while also working together with my fellow SMCF members. In grant reviews, site visits, and solicitation calls, I have to work in a group where each member holds the same important responsibilities. I’ve also learned to use critical thinking skills to decide which organizations I believe SMCF should fund and do awkward adult things like asking people to donate money.”

For SMCF members, the obligation to serve doesn’t stop with grant-making. All SMCF members must meet a 12-hour service requirement. The students work with organizations they have previously funded to find volunteer opportunities for SMCF members and all Upper School students.

“I think one of the most important aspects of SMCF is that we are not just having one-way relationships with agencies by giving them grants,” said Graber. “We are consistently trying to connect with them by serving them. That leads to authentic relationships with agencies’ staff and the constituents the nonprofits serve.”

The students love getting involved with grantees and organizations with missions that support youth in Memphis. “I’ve met so many people in my community, at organizations like the St. Mary’s Cathedral and the Memphis Child Advocacy Center,” added Balink. “I’ve met people in charge of these wonderful nonprofit organizations. I’ve also met people who use their services and learned more about their experiences.”

As part of their fundraising, SMCF hosts the Give901 campaign, a campus-wide campaign that involves students in Lower, Middle, and Upper Schools. This year, the top contributing class in the Middle and Upper Schools (7th and 12th) were awarded a morning off for a service opportunity.

Students on North Campus can’t wait to get involved in what the “big girls” are doing. “Our 5th graders get an opportunity to work with SMCF and get a glimpse of the work they do across the street,” said Thompson.

Although service-inspired learning takes different forms across the divisions, one thing remains constant—the students’ desire to serve.

“Many students participate in service activities outside of school, whether through their family or religious organization,” shared Peredo.

Thompson agreed, “it’s always fun to see a group of girls get excited about starting a lemonade stand to raise money for St. Jude or Le Bonheur. I believe many of the things we do here inspire our girls to do more when they’re not here. These girls are driven to make the world a better place.”

  • All-School
  • Lower School
  • Middle School
  • Upper School

Additional Images

Students gather outside of a private middle school in Memphis, TN holding grocery bags

The 5th grade organized a food drive to benefit the Mid-South Food Bank.

Student from an independent high school for girls in Memphis, TN moving a box on a table

As the top contributors to the SMCF’s Give901 campaign, 7th-grade students received an off-campus service opportunity as a reward.

Senior Astrid Balink shared that she has learned many life skills through participating in St. Mary’s Community Fund.

Students from an all girls high school in Memphis, TN gather outside holding blue buckets

From fundraising to application review to funds distribution, St. Mary’s Community Fund members facilitate the entire grant-making process.