More than ten years ago, my Interact students asked if they could “do something real.” I knew what they were after, but I hardly knew where to start.

There are dozens of ways high schools work to make a difference, to do inevitably what gets called by routine, “Community Service.” We do penny wars for UNICEF, coat collections, food drives, bottle recycling, candy sales, etc. Most of these are done in the safety of the school building. The “community” is an abstract term, heartfelt enough, but apart from our experience. We see neither the cause nor our effect except through the filter of an Instagram or Tumblr feed.

Park clean-ups, food bank shifts, work at a senior center, these all bring us closer to it. They’re all part of the systemic and routine needs of any community. A few hours here and there, and the important work gets done, and then we go back to our lives that same day.

But those students ten years ago were asking for something different. They wanted a lasting impact, to see that their hands could produce a measurable change, and that–when disaster struck–they could do more than the coin drive. When we found National Relief Network, we knew that this “real” thing was before us.

Royal Oak’s Interact students have worked during an Arkansas freeze to uncover an historic cemetery lost beneath tornado debris, inside a FEMA tent in the hot dust of Joplin, beneath the foundations of flooded houses in Nashville, atop (and submerged in!) the swamp mud of New Orleans to plant thousands of cypress trees, and through dozens of homes flooded by hurricanes across the American South. I have little idea what our Hurricane Matthew trip will call on us to do, but I am confident of this:

Community Service this week will mean meeting individuals whose lives have been devastated by hurricane, returning them to homes that for the past six months they have not recognized. The work will test the students–their endurance, their skills, and their perspectives of comfort. They will test their own efficacy. In service, I believe, comes some sort of sacrifice, some giving of one’s self or one’s comfort and privilege.

Our 50 students are dedicating their school and vacation time, have worked to raise the funds to make the trip, and now will sacrifice a week of comforts to make a difference for others. But if community service demands some sacrifice, it cannot be one of regret: the education of our own efficacy–our power to change the world around us–must be worth every moment.

This week the students will post some thoughts and photos of their experiences. Come back for more.