THE BLOG
08/21/2013 01:18 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2013

Embattled Burmese Refugees Aided by NC Schoolchildren

At major corporations today, it's not enough to simply endorse projects for social good. We need to actually get our hands dirty and immerse ourselves in projects that change lives - and in doing so teach young people that ultimately real work is the only vehicle that will affect real change.

That is why we decided to create The Belk Service Learning Challenge, a program we designed with Discovery Education to encourage students to make a positive impact in their local communities by applying what they've learned in the classroom to real-life situations.

Service-based learning provides students with valuable lessons by taking them beyond the walls of their classroom to engage in hands-on programs that help solve real-life problems. These programs not only impact the way students learn, but they shape communities through substantial, positive change. Some 35 states have now endorsed the practice of taking academic skills out of the classroom and using them to solve real-life problems through common core standards.

But it's the less quantifiable data that provides a real look at how students are interacting with this new way of learning and what it can mean for the community as a whole.

Through the Belk Service Learning Challenge, we have uncovered remarkable stories of young people making big impacts in communities across the country. One of these stories involves this year's grand prize winner, a group of students at Neuse Christian Academy in Raleigh, N.C. who recently embarked on their own service-based learning adventure as they sought to help out a group of Burmese refugees known as the Karen people.

The project is a tale of two cities. The students from Neuse Christian attend private school in an upscale Raleigh neighborhood. The Karen, on the other hand, had escaped decades of persecution in Burma and resettled in North Carolina in a nearby housing project.

Unfortunately, even though the Karen escaped violence and ethnic cleansing in the country known under military rule as Myanmar, they faced different challenges here in the U.S. Here they struggle to find ways to support themselves while faced with learning a new language, a new city and a new culture. Making matters worse, these refugees have only 90 days to find employment and become self-sustaining before government assistance ends.

In Raleigh, the refugees found support when the city rallied around them and organized drives to collect household items and toys for their children. It was while volunteering at one of these drives that a group of students from Neuse Christian realized they had the ability to facilitate sustainable assistance to help the Karen long-term. They remembered a line they learned in class, a piece of advice they had analyzed: "Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and feed him for a lifetime."

These students realized what these refugees really needed in order to succeed in this country was a holistic approach to self-sustainability - and with government assistance ending in 90 days, they had to do it quickly.

After researching to find the best jobs for immigrant populations, the students then organized a job fair to help the Karen find employment, and initiated a drive to convince local businesses to hire as many of the refugees as possible. They enlisted their local congressman to provide assistance in the immigration process, and they compiled resource packets for each Karen family containing information on everything they would need to begin a new life in Raleigh -- from the location of local bus routes and stores to instructions on how to open a bank account.

To date, nine of the Karen refugees have secured full time employment as a direct result of the students' efforts, and the students at Neuse Christian don't want to stop there. With additional grant money from Belk, the students arranged a series of English language classes for the Karen, which will be on-going throughout the month of August.

These students believe that the model of holistic self-sustainability they used to help the Karen can be replicated elsewhere. They are encouraging other students to identify a problem and solve it on their own.

What the remarkable young people at Neuse Christian Academy accomplished is service learning at its best.

We need to figure out how to provide more opportunities for students across the country to engage in this fascinating learning model. When it's done right, service learning can be transformational. It can forever impact the lives of students in ways that transcend grades, and in the case of a group of students from Neuse Christian Academy, it can change lives.