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Expanding Reach, Academic Service-Learning Assists Children in South Africa

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Traveling with his wife and young son to South Africa during the summer of 2015, S. Joshua Thomas, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Philosophy, had a transformative experience that compelled him to incorporate Academic Service-Learning (AS-L) into his course work.

“We visited an informal settlement known as Kliptown, and were deeply moved to witness the conditions of extreme poverty in which the people there live, especially young children,” he said.

Located in the impoverished township known as Soweto, Kliptown is home to young people who travel 45 minutes to the nearest school, live without plumbing, and have a limited food supply. “Within an hour of arriving there,” said Thomas, “I began thinking of ways St. John’s students could perform service as part of their philosophy classes to make an impact.”  

He returned to campus and created a partnership between SJU and the Soweto Kliptown Youth (SKY) Foundation—a grassroots community organization that seeks to meet basic needs of children living in Kliptown.

The AS-L project for Thomas’s Fall 2015 ethics course was a book drive with the goal of collecting at least two large boxes of books, per student, for the age group from five to pre-teen. At the end of the semester, 22 students shipped over 1,000 books weighing 735 pounds to the on-site coordinators at SKY.

“Because we were asked by SKY to collect some religious books, I visited a mosque near my home in Westbury, NY, and they donated 120 new Korans,” said Celine Dorisca ’18C, a student in the class. “I’ve never helped little kids before and it felt great to make such a huge contribution to their lives.”

“The day we packed the books for shipping, everyone really worked together to get the job done,” said Gabriela Gilbride ’17C, who collected children’s books from her home, family, and friends. “We even enclosed pictures of ourselves in the boxes so the kids could identify with us—I thought it was a nice touch because it made the service more personalized.”

A second AS-L project was a fundraiser for SKY in Thomas’s Philosophy of the Human Person course, offered in the spring of 2016. A running total of $2,054 was raised by 28 students with the funds earmarked to repair a hole in the library roof. The students used a customized generosity.com page and their own social media platforms to promote the fundraising project. 

Dylan Rabito ’19C came up with a creative way to raise money. “I work at a movie theater and I made a deal with my manager,” Rabito said. “We agreed that he would donate $1 for every ticket sold for one showing of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” With the theater sold out, Rabito raised $125.

Thomas’s students will travel to Kliptown for 12 days as part of a new study abroad course in ethics offered in the fall. The class culminates with an AS-L project in Kliptown at the end of the semester. “We hope to focus on food sustainability while we’re there,” he added, “or perhaps raise enough funds in advance to present SKY with a used bus to transport more children to school.” 

Thomas stressed that service is an essential part of philosophy course work at a Catholic university. “Theory is very important, but philosophy that isn’t translating into concrete changes or improvements in the world isn’t living up to its calling,” said Thomas. “Service is a way for students to see that philosophy is a meaningful and relevant discipline.”