What Does Service Mean to You?

The group of ten Field Education participants arrived in a 15-passenger van to the Kelly Campus of Teton Science Schools on a warm, sunny day in mid fall. After they heard about their task and received their tools – gloves, loppers, and trash bags – they set to work with a fervor commonly reserved for those in their twenties. The only difference was that these participants, vigorously eliminating invasive thistles from several acres of Grand Teton National Park, were Road Scholars – a field group of lifelong learners with an average age of 72.

In March, with several feet of snow still on the ground and more coming down, families ventured into conservation easement land to harvest willow poles to be planted in restoration areas two months later. With their efforts, dozens of bundles of willows were stored and later planted along Cody Creek; given some luck, time, and the service of others, these willow poles will strengthen the banks of the stream and provide much needed habitat for elk, birds, fish, and other wildlife. The families who performed this act of stewardship were military families with recently deployed members – certainly no strangers to service.

“We have so far to go to realize our human potential for compassion, altruism, and love.” – Jane Goodall

Why even bother doing service work here? Take another example: a group of 20 middle school students from Missouri visiting Jackson Hole for a week. They could spend their Thursday hiking, or boating, or building on their science curriculum. They could easily perform service back in Missouri. Instead, they chose to use some of their time to offer a little piece of their hearts to this ecosystem, the one they hiked in and explored for a week. They might spend half a day tearing down fences that block the paths of wildlife through the valley, or refreshing a section of trail that has seen better days. This is stewardship, and this is place-based education.

What do stewardship and service mean to you? This is a question we ask most students who visit Teton Science Schools and perform a service project as part of their visit, and it is a question I asked myself recently. Personally, the term “service” harkens back to a time in middle school when we were mandated to participate in a certain number of service learning hours – a task that I bristled at despite its noble intentions. Perhaps some of you have had similar experiences, feeling that you were not volunteering but “volun-told” to do work that felt disconnected from your life or learning. As an institution, Teton Science Schools participates in and coordinates a significant amount of service learning. The more I see it in action, the more I feel inspired to ask tougher questions about it, and the more excited I become about its possibilities.

“To give real service you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money, and that is sincerity and integrity.” – Douglas Adams

In one month, another group of military families will gather at our Jackson Campus for some much needed respite and bonding time. They will sink deeply into this place, and let it fuel them. They will hike together, learn about our natural spaces, and contribute a part of their time in service to our community. In serving this community they honor us, and they honor their learning. To them, service has layers of meaning that transcend animal habitat and trails, invasive plants and bird boxes. Stewardship is not an add-on to the experience, but an integral part of their bonding and community relationships.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” In my eyes, the education that we hope to facilitate here makes better citizens who make a difference in their worlds. The service we engage in drives deeper, stronger conversations about places and their value. We face the hard questions about stewardship (To what end? Why here?) first with the confidence that these questions should never cease, and second with the certainty that a week of education finds context through stewardship of the land and community.

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