Earning a Varsity Letter in Community Service – What a Wonderful Idea

At Minnetonka High School in Minnesota, it’s not just athletes who can earn a varsity letter.

Those students committed to community service now have the same opportunity.

According to Shannon Prather of the Star Tribune, the west metro high school is one of a growing number of high schools that allow students to letter in community service in addition to athletics, academics, music, and other extracurricular activities.

This seems like a wonderful idea. It gives the students a chance to pursue something they are passionate about, and to be recognized in the same way that athletes are recognized if they achieve a certain level of accomplishment.

And it’s not easy, here are the requirements:

  • 150 hours of unpaid, volunteer service completed in any 12 month period beginning the summer before 9th grade. At least 75 hours must be completed through one agency or for one cause to insure understanding and sustained commitment to a selected social issue that is personally relevant to you, e.g. homelessness, elderly care, poverty, literacy, environment, health care.
  • A record of all service hours verified by an adult supervisor or parent.
  • Two recommendation letters from organizations or people served describing your service and performance.
  • Reflection Project: A written reflection, journal, video, song, work of art, children’s book, presentation, interview with Ms. Seets or other piece of work based on your sustained service with one agency or in one area of need.
  • You must be academically eligible (2.0 or above GPA) and chemical free during the year to participate in this program.

Here are the details of the Reflection Project:

The purpose of the Reflection Project is to demonstrate your understanding of the agency or issue of interest by answering the following questions:

  1. What is the organization, need or issue selected and why did you chose it?
  2. Why does this issue exist and who is affected?
  3. Who are the public and private organizations working on this issue and what is being done to address it? How are they succeeding and what are their limitations?
  4. What did you expect to experience before you began volunteering in this area and how did your expectations differ from your actual experiences?
  5. How did you serve? Describe your thoughts and feelings at specific times as you served.
  6. Were there ethical issues that you encountered?
  7. What new skills, knowledge and/or understanding have you gained?

It seems to me that the school district has established a high set of standards in order to earn the varsity letter. The students who earn such a letter have learned the importance of making a difference in their community, and the people they serve benefit from such service as well. It’s a great idea every way you look at it.

“Serving the greater good is part of our mission statement,” said Minnetonka Schools Superintendent Dennis Peterson. “We think it’s important that we acknowledge students who are doing service projects in the community. We just think it’s important enough to give it a letter.”

The community service letter is growing in popularity. Last school year, 54 students earned it, up from around 30 the year prior.

One student, during his freshman year, built a paver patio at a senior home, which also helped him achieve the rank of Eagle Scout. The last two years, he’s volunteered as a warehouse assistant at Bridging, a nonprofit that provides furnishings and household goods to families in need. He moves furniture and packs trucks. He’s continued to volunteer at Bridging because it fills an important yet often overlooked need for struggling families.

Another student, a senior, has pursued the community service letter all four years of high school while also lettering in lacrosse, diving and academics. One year, she assisted a fourth-grade teacher. “It was super cool to be in the classroom with all the kids,” she said. “I want to be a teacher someday.” She’s also helped coach young girls on the finer points of lacrosse, sorted and shelved items at a nonprofit thrift store and volunteered at an international girls’ and women’s leadership nonprofit. Talk about learning time management!

I love sports and was a varsity letter winner all four years of college for swimming (Go Warriors!). But there is nothing special about sports that says it is the only endeavor worthy of having a student earn a varsity letter for one’s efforts. Participation in community service would seem to offer many of the same benefits a student would get from participating in sports – teamwork, commitment to excellence, the opportunity to grow as an individual, and learning time management to name a few.

I think the next logical step would be for colleges to offer scholarships for students who have excelled at community service prior to college, and who plan to continue to do so in college. There are scholarships for athletes, scholars, and band members (among others), so why not for outstanding community service?

I congratulate the school district of Minnetonka on their commitment to encouraging and recognizing its students for their involvement in community service, and I congratulate the students and wish them continued success – and hopefully a college scholarship.