A Day to Reflect on the Meaning of Service

students filling gift bags“Today is all about actions, not words. It’s our day of service. There could not be a better way to honor Cornelia Connelly and her heritage as we all go out today to share the Cornelian values of compassion, joy, empathy, and service,” said Upper School Division Head Kate McGroarty. 

With those words, she initiated Service Day — a two-decade-long tradition involving a pause in the academic schedule and an opportunity for each Upper School grade level to venture off campus and assist in various community service endeavors and for Lower School students to spend the latter part of their afternoon with a service project of their own.

This year’s Upper School service trips by grade level went to Reeves-Reed Arboretum in Summit (Grade 7), GRACE Food Pantry in Summit (Grade 8), Bridges Outreach in Summit (Grade 9), ECLC School in Chatham (Grade 10), Mercy Houses in Newark, Elizabeth, and Jersey City (Grade 11), and Community Food Bank of NJ in Hillside (Grade 12). Oak Knoll has partnered with many of these organizations over the years on Service Day and throughout the year.

While off-campus, Upper School students spent the morning participating in a wide variety of activities, including weeding, planting, sorting and cataloging items of clothing, assembling perishable and non-perishable lunch bags, cleaning kitchens and laundry rooms, befriending children with special needs, and packing and organizing food pantry items.

young students stuffing hygiene bagsDuring the afternoon, Lower School students joined the fray for a service afternoon of their own — packaging gift bags to be delivered to those in need in our communities through the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless. Lower School families had donated food, clothing, and hygiene items that filled the various gift bags. As part of their leadership work, grade 6 students oversaw the activities with PK-5 students — explaining the role of the Elizabeth Coalition, helping the classroom students assemble care packages, and sharing their favorite books about empathy, compassion, and service to others.

“This day is so important.” said Lower School Division Head Chris Spies, “not only for what we can give to others but also to see our students putting their faith and Holy Child Goals in action and helping them recognize that they can each make a difference in the world.”

After returning from service field trips, Upper School students gathered in advisory groups and reflected on the morning’s events. One of the questions they reflected upon was, “How can your experience today transform your everyday life?” The transformational aspect of service is at the very heart of Oak Knoll’s teaching. Service is not an annual morning event that cycles past in the calendar. Service Day is meant to symbolize what being in community with others truly means. 

To close the day, Upper School students gathered for a final assembly, and representatives from each grade shared their thoughts and reflections. 

“I think it made me realize the importance of volunteering and not just donating — helping out and ensuring that we’re being present and not just making donations and feeling like that has fulfilled the totality of it all. Sometimes we feel like we want to do everything for everyone, but making sure that we just make those first steps to doing something for someone can be the change we want to see,” reflected Marianna Bernardo ’25.

Head of School Jennifer Landis said in closing the last assembly of the day, “Find out what it is that you can give back to the world. There will always be gifts that you have that you can bring to the community. Not just on service day, but every day is an opportunity for you to serve one another in this community and beyond.”

Photo of student council members