Mineola High School’s Falk-Sysak Student Service Center (SSC) has been helping foster student volunteers for more than three decades and its evolution from a small program to 600 kids is a testament to its mission.
The programs are designed to develop multiple skills from team building, work with the elderly, youths and less fortunate. The team-oriented work varies from weekly to yearly service projects. The high school holds a 9/11 Day of Service every year that remembers those lost in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, along with MINNeola Macaroni Night (INN), where students help the Interfaith Nutrition Network feed hungry and homeless Long Islanders.
Students in the program volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House of Long Island in New Hyde Park, which provides housing for families with sick children.
Mineola was the first high school to send students to the Ronald McDonald House more than 25 years ago.
“We have a very strong focus on service learning, where service is linked to a specific curriculum or course,” Center Co-Director Eileen Burke said at last Thursday’s Mineola School Board meeting. “But what we’re talking about tonight is the element of community service and volunteerism.”
SSC students volunteered 3,490 hours in 2014-15. SSC members have already hit 1,280 in 16-17. While there’s no service hour requirement, officials feel the work is rewarding enough that students will continue to help long after any requirement would foster.
“We found that getting students to participate in one activity sometimes takes a little nudging, but when they get there, they want to keep coming back,” Nancy Regan, the center’s co-director said. “That’s the goal; that we help them to make a lifelong commitment to service.”
High school senior Pratibha Anand started at the SSC in ninth grade and credits the work in helping her become outgoing.
“If you met me in ninth grade, I would not have been able to stand up [at a meeting] and talk,” she said. “The Student Service Center helped me make friends and create social skills I never had before.”
Mineola High School English teacher Diane Falk founded the center in 1983. One year later, Lunch Bunch, a program that coupled high school seniors with senior citizens for lunch with activities, along with visits to Sunharbor Nursing Home, were implemented. The SSC runs more than 15 programs today.
“This was decades before experiential learning, authentic assessment, all those things became keywords in education,” Burke said. “[Falk] came up with the idea of incorporating a service program into the high school.”
Walter Sysak, a former Mineola School Board member, supported Falk’s plan thoroughly through his untimely passing in 1986. Mineola had the center named after Sysak before adding Falk’s name to the program 25 years later. She retired in 2001.
“These are programs that show her brilliance in coming up with ideas,” Burke said.
The program was funded by the Carnegie Foundation before obtaining finances through the federally-funded Learn and Serve America Grant from 1989-2011. Mineola had partnered with schools in Carle Place, Queens and Brooklyn to obtain the grant.
“Like most federal funding, it went away,” Burke said. “The district has been supportive since 1983. It wouldn’t exist without [Mineola] giving us time.”
Sodexo, a hunger foundation along with Youth Service America, the Nassau County Bar Association and the Walter Kaner Children’s Foundation help aid the program today.
The SSC recently devised a digital badge system that members earn when they hit certain goals. A digital portfolio is created to identify student contributions and achievements.
“Each of the badges are customized and designed to correspond to the events, the service hours and the participation that the students contribute to the student services,” high school assistant Amy Trojanowski said.
The service learning curriculum in Mineola projects to keep rising as it gains more interested students.
“Oftentimes, school, academics, that’s what we talk about, however, what [the SSC] represents is really the heart [of Mineola],” School Board Vice President Christine Napolitano said. “It’s important for our students, teachers, administrators, to realize how important this is not only for your well-being but just to what we try to do here. To realize you’re part of a global society.”