Community Service vs. Service-Learning

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In community service, youth provide service to benefit others. In service-learning youth ORGANIZE service to create meaningful change.

Community Service

Community service is volunteer action to meet the needs of others and better the community as a whole. In schools, community service typically involves canned food drives, coat drives, penny collections, holiday cards for residents of nursing homes, and Thanksgiving and Christmas drives to benefit the needy. These projects are intended to develop the habits and skills of volunteerism and are often capped off with a party to celebrate success.

For many youth, “community service” also means court-ordered service, a form of sentencing for misbehavior or breaking the law.


Service-learning expands on community service by enabling students to explore and examine the needs of others before providing service. The object is to ensure that the service is meaningful and will meet the needs of those being served.

Service-learning also integrates student service into the academic curriculum and emphasizes both service and learning. Structured time is provided for thoughtful planning of the student actions and guided reflection on the service experience.

For example, in service-learning, a canned food drive becomes much more than a competition to collect the most cans. Students can:

  • Interview staff of the local food bank to find out what foods are needed most.
  • Study hunger and homelessness by reading books, such as The Can-Do Thanksgiving, or by examining local data on hunger in the community that has been compiled by nonprofits or government agencies.
  • Learn about nutrition and help others gather ingredients for nutritious meals for a family of four.
  • Educate their peers about good nutrition and healthy eating.
  • Use math skills to graph the results of the food drive by type of food and number of meals.
  • Give a presentation on the food drive and hunger in the local community to the school board and other organizations, to help effect change.