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  • Writer's pictureMichael Walter

Service Learning - Reflections from designing a school experience for a not-for-profit

On Wednesday night we hosted our first webinar on service learning. The definition of service learning that we were working with is “service learning is where people learn through active participation in a community project.” It was so great to hear and capture the ideas and reflections from many educators across Australia. There is a great benefit in meeting and sharing ideas. Collaboration and networking is key for effective community action!

In this brief blog I’m going to share how I planned and developed a school program for a not-for-profit that worked with people experiencing homelessness.


My role was to develop an experience for students where they could engage with people experiencing homelessness who received support from a van that provided food, resources and friendship in different locations around Melbourne, Australia.

Previously (for 25 years) high school students had been involved in the program. While it had been a great program, it had become haphazard and sometimes school groups would arrive and the volunteers weren’t aware they were coming.

There were also issues of dignity. At times a whole cohort of students (sometimes a total of 35 students) would arrive at one of the stops and not engage with the people receiving assistance, but instead just watched.

It was also becoming risky. There were situations where students and volunteers would be inside unsafe boarding houses and sometimes they would be volunteering without the support of experienced volunteers.

It was decided that the program should close, go under review and then reopen after being redesigned.

I was employed to develop the new program after the review was conducted.

So what was the design process?

Firstly I read through the notes from the review to see why the program was shut down in the first place.

I then developed a design criteria. The program had to be:

  1. Person Centred

  2. Safe

  3. Educational

  4. Sustainable

Person Centred

A key requirement in designing the program was that it had to be a dignified experience. Sleeping rough is a highly vulnerable situation to be in, so it was important that if we were to run a school activity, it had to first and foremost be valuable and good for the people who received support.

I attended many of the different vans around Victoria. This was to get a sense of the culture, the people receiving assistance and what was important to them, and also the volunteers and longtime volunteers. It was important that I developed trust with these groups.

I then spoke with key stakeholders. I met with a few of the teachers to find out more about their expectations of the program. Later I would pilot the program with these groups. I also spoke with the staff from the not-for-profit who supported the program.

In a nutshell, I spoke and engaged with loads of people.

What I learned:

  1. The volunteers needed space to be able to prepare for the night without having students in the kitchen.

  2. The volunteers were often busy handing out food and other items that they didn’t have as much time to speak and engage with people.

  3. The people receiving assistance were in frequent need of things like socks and nicer toiletry items.

  4. The people receiving assistance really valued the service as well as the company and friendship that the volunteers shared.


Safety was one of the biggest concerns as we were working with young people.

When I attended the different services around Victoria I viewed everything with a Risk lens. I’d try and think of everything that could go wrong and imagine what the situation would be like if students were there.

On a number of occasions I went on the van with the Risk and Audit Manager and also the Work Health Safety manager. After these outings we’d meet and create a Risk Register where we’d detail the risk, and then created mitigations for these.


It was important to prepare the students who were going to attend. It was a requirement that students had to nominate themselves to attend and that it would only be small groups that would go.

I created a presentation that was delivered at the school prior to the experience. Then when the students arrived on the night of the experience, we spoke about what the plan was. The goal was to develop empathy and motivate the students to take action to support the people they had met.

On the night I’d invite one of the regular volunteers to join us on the school van and they’d share about their volunteer experience.

At the end of the night we’d debrief and the students would share what they had experienced.


When I was creating the program I wanted to design it in such a way that it wouldn’t fall apart when I left the organisation.

I also wanted it to be of benefit to the people who received food and services from the program.

Everything was templated. I created speaking notes for the facilitator who was leading the night as well checklists of the things that needed to be done.

The Risk Register remained an ongoing and open document. Any new risks were inputted and discussed.

The result

In the end the program was much more scaffolded than in the past. Students would learn about homelessness and the causes of homelessness prior to attending the van. We made the group sizes much smaller. Prior to attending the school would be notified about what the resources the community needed and then the students would source this for when they would attend.

On the night the students would arrive 1 hour before going out. I would lead them through some information as a pre-briefing. We’d discuss their expectations, talk through our code of conduct and also practice how to start a conversation with a stranger. Also one of the volunteers would come and share about their experience volunteering. The hope in all of this was to dispel recurring myths about homelessness and prompt the young people to take action after the experience. A number of the regular volunteers on the program had their first experience on a school program.

How does this relate to a Covid world and service learning projects?

I’d encourage everyone in the development of a service learning project to first think broadly about the intended goals and to create a design criteria. This will help guide the process, especially when it becomes complicated.

Covid safety adds another level of complexity but this doesn’t make it impossible to contribute to the community. Be Collective provides lots of opportunities to volunteer in a safe way.

Human Centred Design provides a useful set of tools and a process that is helpful when designing something new. It could be worth teaching your students this process as a way to guide the creation of their service learning project. At the heart of all service learning projects the main concern should be the needs of the people your project is seeking to assist. Engage them in the process as they will be the experts of their own lives.

Acumen+ has made a free online course called Introduction to Human Centred Design (HCD). This is a good place to start to learn the skills of HCD.

Leading Service Learning projects can be complicated. Online tools can help to make the process less unwieldy. I wrote an article that shares lots of free websites and software that you may find useful.

We’ve uploaded a recording of our webinar in our Mighty Network group “Service Learning in a Covid World.” If you are interested in service learning please feel free to join! Click here.

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