Service Learning Program Provides Hands-On Learning and Community Benefit

Service Learning IconBy Mike McKissack

Each year, hundreds of COD students are gaining, crucial real-world experience, enhanced learning and a greater sense of satisfaction by participating in service learning experiences across a broad range of disciplines and venues.

Volunteer roles include helping to provide a clean bed at a homeless shelter; assisting refugees with the first steps of resettlement; helping children with developmental disabilities develop muscle tone and balance while horseback riding; teaching grade school children about money or sustainability; planting, growing and harvesting plants; offering companionship to individuals with special needs; or holding an infant who has special medical needs.

“The Service Learning program at College of DuPage is more than volunteering,” said Sara Kirby, COD Career Services Assistant Manager. “The program includes three crucial components – student engagement, community partnerships and faculty facilitated learning – and involves a teaching style that engages learning in the classroom through hands-on service in the community and civic responsibility. It teaches things traditional classroom experiences cannot and gives students the opportunity to experience a different side of their community and receive a fresh perspective on the world while gaining an understanding of the impact they can have through volunteerism.”

Through Service Learning, each year, between 350 to more than 500 COD students from more than 40 classes provide approximately 7,000 hours of service to more than 80 organizations throughout the community, Kirby said. In addition, the students’ work has a real economic impact on the community. Based on wage values established by the Corporation for National and Community Service, COD service learners provided more than $170,000 worth of service annually to individuals, organizations and the community at large.

Kirby said that while community engagement is important, it’s the experience’s relationship to the coursework that remains a vital element of service learning.

“The most crucial element in any assignment is that it facilitates prompted reflection about how the volunteer experience connects to course material,” Kirby said. “Reflection is where the magic happens. The integration of the experience to the coursework is where we see the greatest learning in students.”

COD Professor of English Lisa Higgins noted that COD instructors have integrated service learning into their curriculum in a variety of ways.

“In some classes, service learning is a requirement,” she said. “In others, it is an alternate assignment that underscores course objectives. Students may be asked to keep journals to reflect on their service learning experiences and relate course concepts to what they are doing or observing on site. Additional assignments might include essays, oral presentations, brochure design or email reports. In some cases, students actively try to solve a problem in the community, drafting advocacy letters or planning and implementing an activity to help raise awareness about an important issue.”

Since incorporating service learning into some of her composition classes in 2004, student response has been overwhelmingly positive, Higgins said. In addition to providing students with a great opportunity to apply what they’re learning in the classroom and gain invaluable real-world service experience, completing this program is a positive resume-builder and increases opportunities for scholarships and successful transfer applications. Higgins said service learning also helps the participants develop time management and interpersonal skills, provides the opportunity to network and make professional connections, and enables students to test the waters of a chosen career path.

“Service learning enables students to explore their options and discover if a particular area of study is a good fit for them,” she said. “They also get to see the connection between what we do in the class and the impact they can have in the community.”

Currently, COD students are making a strong impact at Almost Home Kids (AHK), a transitional care facility in Naperville for children with complicated medical conditions.

According to AHK Community Outreach Coordinator Lisa Snow, approximately 12 COD service learning students dedicate their time and service to the center each semester. She said it’s not unusual for a few students to stay on past the required time period and she is delighted with the results of the 11-year partnership.

“Students work one-on-on with children who have some pretty complex medical needs,” she said. “They engage with them for an hour or two by reading a book, taking a walk outside on nice days, doing play activities or simply holding a baby, enriching their lives when their parents can’t be here.”

At only a few months old, Lily was diagnosed with hypotonia (low-muscle tone), a condition that, among other things, prevented her from breathing deeply enough to expel all the C02 and clear her lungs. As a result of her diagnosis, Lily needed a tracheotomy, a ventilator and a gastrostomy tube. Soon after her diagnosis, Lily’s parents Emma and Robert brought her to AHK.

“It’s difficult to describe how helpful AHK has been,” Emma said. “If this program wasn’t available, we would have been sent home from the hospital with little if any training on how to take care of our child. At AHK, they’re dedicated to taking care of the children and training parents to provide home care.”

This is not the first time that Lily’s parents have worked with AHK. In 2012, their son Travis was also diagnosed with hypotonia and underwent a tracheotomy at seven months old. He stayed at AHK for five months, finally coming home just after his first birthday.

A former Wheaton resident and COD student, Emma said that the service provided by AHK staff and volunteers has been invaluable.

“I try to come here every day but if I can’t, it’s nice to know that there are volunteers here that will sit with Lily, hold her and interact with her so she’s not by herself all day,” Emma said. “This attention really helps with their healing.”

COD Diagnostic Medical Imaging Sonography student and Elmhurst resident Julie Lehocky initially became involved with AHK through satisfying the 20-hour service learning component required in her Basic Patient Skills class. She has enjoyed her experience there so much that she has continued volunteering at AHK.

“I truly love the opportunity to work with this center,” said Lehocky. “This has been the perfect place to satisfy the requirements for my class. It has introduced me to the medical field and enabled me to translate everything I was learning in the classroom to the real world. This experience is going to be vital for me in the future.”

Lehocky said her typical day at AHK can range from comforting an infant who is only a couple weeks old to spending time playing a game with a child or reading to a 17-year-old.

“You can replicate certain environments and tasks in the classroom; however, this one-on-one patient interaction has given me a much deeper understanding of what I’m going to be doing in my career.”

Also pursuing an Associate degree in Diagnostic Medical Imaging Sonography at COD, Daniela Smahon chose to volunteer at AHK to satisfy the 20-hour service learning component required in her Basic Patient Skills class. She said while the experience was well outside her comfort zone, it far exceeded her expectations.

“I’ve always loved working with children but I had never interacted with children with such difficult medical challenges,” Smahon said. “The first time I was here, it was heartbreaking; I wasn’t sure I would be able to handle it. I quickly realized that I wanted to help these children and make a difference in their lives.”

Smahon said that while she was initially apprehensive about volunteering at AHK, she is thrilled with her experience there and that it has benefitted her in unexpected ways.

“For me, this has been a life changing experience,” she said. “It served as much-needed confirmation that a career in healthcare was a good fit for me and as a result, I’ve become more ambitious in pursuing my goals. The Service Learning program at COD has given me great experience in a real healthcare setting and made me a more caring and thankful person.”

As one of Ray Graham Association’s community learning centers, the 12-acre Hanson Center in Burr Ridge offers a range of programs for children and adults with and without disabilities. The center's therapeutic horsemanship program offers beginning and intermediate English and Western riding lessons for children age three to adults.

Riding horseback since age three, 17-year-old Genevieve Sevilla has been visiting the Hanson Center every Wednesday for the last four years for riding lessons and to connect with friends, instructors and volunteers. According to her mother Christine Sevilla, the benefits of the services provided go well beyond recreation.

“The services provided at the Hanson Center impact my family in incredibly positive ways,” said Sevilla. “There are all kinds of physical benefits as well as wonderful emotional and social aspects. Genevieve has a very active lifestyle and is engaged in all kinds of activities but this is the gem of her week. ”

Sevilla said that the COD student volunteers have been wonderful and that they add a unique element to the horsemanship program.

“The dedication they show and the work the COD students do here is immeasurable,” Sevilla said. “They are spectacular young individuals who bring a real vibrance to the space. We love all of our volunteers, but these students are a special group.”

To say that COD graduate Ashley Young has enjoyed volunteering at the Hanson Center is an understatement. In fact, she has logged in more than 100 hours, far past the 20 hours required by her COD Presidential Scholarship. Young said her work at the Hanson Center has helped her learn to manage her time and responsibilities and be more patient. She said the experience also served to validate her career choice.

“Volunteering at the Hanson Center has been a great learning experience,” she said. “I’m getting experience that’s directly related to my career that you just can’t get in a classroom. I’ve known I wanted to be a teacher since I was a child but I never really knew which area I wanted to pursue. Coming here was an instant decision that special education was the right path for me.”

Young said she has continued volunteering because of the welcoming environment and the gratification she gets from the work.

“I decided to continue volunteering at the Hanson Center because it’s very much like a family here – it’s like a paradise away from home,” said the Darien resident.  “I can put in a little time and really make a difference in people’s lives. The bond you get with the different riders is awesome and very rewarding. “

Young recently earned an Associate in Arts at COD and graduated with Honors as a member of Phi Theta Kappa. She will transfer this fall through COD’s Enhanced 2+2 program to Lewis University where she plans to earn her bachelor’s degree in Special Education.

“Service learning is a great opportunity to gain real-world experience, evaluate different aspects of your life, learn about yourself and see what path you want to take,” she said.

Located in Naperville, Almost Home Kids provides transitional care for children with complicated medical needs who have been discharged from a hospital but for whom preparations at home need to be made. In a comforting, residential setting, children receive 24-hour medical and nursing care from pediatric nurses as well as attention and human interaction from volunteers. For more information call (630) 271-9155, visit or email

Serving over 2,000 children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families, the Ray Graham Association provides a broad array of residential, employment, life skills and family support services. For more information, call (630) 620-2222 or visit

Through building and maintaining partnerships with organizations throughout DuPage County, the Center for Service Learning at College of DuPage provides tools, resources and information for students, faculty members and community organizations to offer students the opportunity to participate in community service that is directly related to the topics covered in the classroom.

Please click here to view a video about the work students are doing through the Service Learning program at College of DuPage.

For more information about COD’s Service Learning program, please visit or call Career Services at (630) 942-2230.

Pictured left to right: Emma, Julie Lehocky and Lily. (Press Photography Network/Special to College of DuPage)