Ten years ago, my Interact (youth Rotary) students told me that they wanted to do more than simply stage charity drives—they wanted to go out and help people directly. But as a high school English teacher, I hardly knew where to begin.

On top of simply finding the means to coordinate with local relief agencies, many with whom we inquired either doubted the ability of teenagers to do serious disaster relief work or had rules denying them the opportunity to help.

National Relief Network of Greenville, MI (nrn.org) is perhaps the only non-profit in the country that both believed in our students and could coordinate with FEMA and state and local agencies to help assist those families who too often fall through the cracks of traditional relief efforts.

Through NRN, more than 500 Royal Oak High School students over the past 10 years have worked to help families after Hurricanes Katrina, Isaac, and Ike, tornadoes in Joplin, Birmingham, and Little Rock, and floods in Louisiana and Kentucky. We have worked on the largest environmental restoration project in human history along the Gulf Coast, planting cypress trees to protect the shoreline; and we have worked alongside the US Army Corps of Engineers in the hot dust of Joplin.

This week, Interact of Royal Oak takes nearly 50 more students to Holly Springs, Mississippi, where a Christmas-time tornado destroyed dozens of homes. The students have raised hundreds of dollars each to spend their winter break working to the limits of their capacity.

I do it for what they will learn.  As the advisor of this youth Rotary club, I have become interested in efficacy, a student’s ability (and belief in that ability) to affect the world in meaningful ways. It is an idea that speaks to the core of democracy, to compassion , and to individual future success and happiness.

Apathy does not spring from boredom but from, I believe, a disbelief that there is anything which can be done.  Our votes don’t seem to count, human tragedies on the news appear too vast and distant, and little looks worthy of our time but the time required to earn a diminishing paycheck.

I don’t know exactly what each student will learn this week, but that they have volunteered each year is not merely because the work is fun—it is not.  They come because they learn something truly important.

Over the next week, you can expect to hear from some of these students with updates on our work and their personal reflections on it.  Enjoy them as I will.