Jefferson City Academic Center students were out and about Thursday trying out different ways to give back to their community.
JCAC has service days three times a year, and school activities go on hold for half the day while students head to locations around the city to help out, then return to school either to go home on a half-day or do other activities for the rest of the day on a full day.
Among the tasks Thursday were bagging dog and cat food at Catholic Charities Food Pantry and working with the animals at the Jefferson City Animal Shelter.
Pet food is consistently one of the top requested items at the food pantry, program coordinator Lori Stoll said. The pantry serves more than 600 households a month.
Students were asked to redistribute large bags of pet food into smaller, more manageable bags. They paired up, with one teammate pouring the food while the other held the bag and tried not to let any pieces spill out.
Students at the animal shelter spent their time giving the animals some affection and play time. Some students sat inside enclosures with the animals that were too young to go for a walk in the yard. Others took dogs out on a leash for a walk, run or belly rub. Others played with the cats, letting them stretch their legs or cuddle.
When JCAC was founded in 2006, every Friday was devoted to service activities, teacher Carla Brown said. But school staff members soon realized it would be too much to do every week, so it evolved into the few times a year that it is currently.
JCAC also has service-learning classes throughout the week that are longer than traditional class periods.
Brown teaches a reading class and takes students to Little Explorers Discovery Center, where they read to children.
"And so they get to volunteer, and they get to think about literacy and helping other people develop their literacy, so it's very powerful," Brown said.
Jerri Groves teaches an entrepreneurship class and brings students to Loving Paws in Holts Summit, a pet services organization which also houses foster dogs until they are placed. Groves said this offers the opportunity for students to ask questions about how the business got started. Her students also go to Belair Elementary to serve as teachers' aides one day a week.
Other students go to other schools and tutor or mentor younger students.
Students can also work on projects at school, like making baby-size bedsheets, burp cloths or blankets to donate to daycare centers. Services classes also maintain the school's food pantry.
Throughout the years, service days have included all sorts of activities. Students have built houses with Habitat for Humanity, danced with residents in the memory care unit of local nursing homes and assisted living centers, worked at the Gibbs Center, put together packages for hospice, or cleaned up at Binder Park.
The day can also double as a career exploration opportunity. By working in different roles, students can get a handle on whether or not they're interested in certain career fields. Sometimes, the day is used to take the students on a college visit, which is an eye-opening experience, Brown said.
Service days are a chance to meet and network with other caring members of the community.
"They more and more understand that they can use this on job applications. They can use this on college applications," Brown said. "When we used to go to backpack buddies, there were some lovely older ladies there that helped my students get jobs, that made calls on their behalf, and so I had a couple students get jobs at the nursing home."
By the end of the school year, JCAC has given an estimated $400,000 worth of service hours back to the community, according to home school coordinator Debbie Cornell.
Cornell makes a point of conveying to the students the importance of giving back. JCAC has been given lots of donations by the community, and they're grateful, Brown said.
"And she makes a point of explaining this to the kids, pointing out, this is us trying to give back," Brown said. "Lots of people give us things. We're very grateful at JCAC, we've had lots of people donate to us, lots of people help us out, and so that is us trying to give back to the community that has supported us."