Seeking a Deeper Connection with My Community

May 25, 2021

Contributed by Leticia Ruiz, Shinnyo-en Hawaii Youth Association

This year, we were delighted to support Leticia Ruiz, a Shinnyo-en Youth leader from Hawaii, to participate in the 32nd National Service-Learning Conference. Shinnyo-en Foundation has been one of the lead sponsors for the conference over a decade because we share a strong alignment with the conference’s organizer, the National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC). As we support the Shinnyo-en youth’s participation in the National Service-Learning Conference every year, we use the conference as a platform for our grantee and affiliate organizations to share their best practices and resources with other conference participants. In addition, we use the conference as an opportunity for Shinnyo-en youth participants to meet in a more intimate smaller group with the NYLC executive leaders and the Foundation’s other thought leaders to learn more about the conference and their leading practices and valuable resources for service-learning.

We also provide the participating Shinnyo-en youth with an opportunity to further develop their leadership skills through their discussion with other participants, reflective scrapbook making and sharing of the scrapbook at the end of the conference, and reflection essay writing after the conference. Below you’ll read the excerpt from Leticia’s post-conference reflection essay that Leticia allowed us to post on our website so graciously. Leticia also sent us the photos of her scrapbook. Please read on to learn how Leticia was impacted and inspired by the National Service-Learning Conference!

“One of our core values at the Shinnyo-en Buddhist Order is acts of service. We believe that we can create peace in our community and find peace within ourselves through the giving of our time and energy to others. I’ve participated in many community service projects with the temple youth group thus far. For example, we counted and packed frozen food trays for Meals on Wheels. We also cleaned kennels for the local dog shelter. As a high school student, I served food to those in need on Thanksgiving and assisted physicians with conducting free eye exams for senior citizens. Although I am always willing to offer my time and energy to my community, I never felt a deep connection to how we were contributing. Each project lasted for a day and then we moved on to the next item on our agenda.

A few months ago, the Hawaii youth leaders received the information about the National Service-Learning Conference from Shinnyo-en Foundation. We were asked to nominate our local youth members who would be good candidates for the sponsorship. As I was going through the details of the conference information, I grew more and more interested in attending the conference myself. The purpose of the National Service-Learning Conference is to connect community leaders, educators, and students from across the country in discussions and workshops on the topic of service-learning.

One of the responsibilities of a Youth Association leader at Shinnyo-en is to familiarize ourselves with the many events, programs and organizations that the Foundation sponsors. My one and only involvement with the Foundation had been back in 2007 when I was selected to join the Annual Retreat in the San Francisco Bay Area. There I met the community leaders and youths from all of the Shinnyo-en USA temples and the Foundation’s grantees and affiliates. This experience inspired me to become more involved with my own community when I returned to Honolulu. I was looking forward to having a similar break-through with this upcoming conference.

After applying and receiving confirmation of my attendance, I was asked to learn more about the conference and the Foundation. The National Service-Learning Conference is organized by the National Youth Leadership Council based in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Its mission is to create a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world, with young people, their schools, and communities through service-learning. Shinnyo-en Foundation is the secular branch of the Shinnyo-en Buddhist Order and its mission is to promote global peace through service by nurturing future generations. The Foundation sponsors the events, programs, and organizations that focus on leadership development, service-learning, social-emotional learning, and interfaith dialogue.

I had many questions before the conference began; ‘What is service-learning?’ ‘Can we participate in service-learning at Shinnyo-en?’ ‘How do we get started?’ and ‘Is it youth-directed?’ Along with my questions, I was also concerned about being the only Shinnyo-en youth participant this year. I represented Shinnyo-en and wanted to be the optimal participant. I did not feel fully prepared for the two-day virtual conference so I was very grateful that the Foundation organized a pre-conference orientation for the organizers and other participants. The orientation was a great introduction to the conference and helped me choose which workshops I wanted to attend for the next two days.

Lisa Sackreiter, the Director of Service-Learning and Community Engagement at the Blake School in Minnesota, was a speaker at both the orientation and conference. She defined service-learning as ‘an approach to teaching and learning, in which students use academic and civic knowledge, and skills to address genuine community needs.’ Lisa also explained the steps of service-learning through actual projects that her students started and executed. The service-learning process or IPARD steps are 1. Investigation, 2. Planning & Preparation, 3. Reflection, and 4. Demonstration & Celebration. Lisa described an example of the second grade class at the Blake School, in which the students learned that wild wolves were being taken off of the endangered species list. They visited the local wild wolf rescue center and studied more about the wolves and their needs through webcams (Investigation). The students then created art and listed facts about wolves to raise public awareness. By raising public awareness, they were also able to raise funds to buy supplies for the rescue center (Planning & Preparation). The students continued to help raise awareness by visiting other classrooms in their school and sharing their experiences with their greater community (Reflection and Demonstration).

During the orientation, I also heard from the Foundation’s grantees, who were the Environmental Science Center in Burien, WA; ThinkGive in Boston, MA; and Youth Community Service in Palo Alto, CA. I was intrigued by all of the projects that they facilitate in their communities and it inspired me to start brainstorming what the genuine needs might be in my own community. For example, I thought that within our Shinnyo-en Hawaii community, we could engage with the senior citizens’ group, the young children’s group, or the youth groups on the neighbor islands. The Honolulu temple is located in the Moʻiliʻili area of Oʻahu. We’re close to the university campus, Shriners Hospital, and Ronald McDonald House. There are also homeless camps in the local parks. These organizations could be the places for us to serve potentially. Initial project ideas that came to my mind included a can food drive, a community or beach clean-up, and a clothing drive. On a global scale, I also thought that learning American Sign Language could contribute to creating a more peaceful community. All these ideas were generated and stimulated by listening to the presentations by the grantees at the orientation.


On the following day we attended the first day of the National Service-Learning Conference. We were invited to attend up to three live workshops each day, in addition to the opening plenary, Student Showcases and break sessions. These workshops were led by educators, students, and community leaders. I realized that I have a dual role as a youth leader and as a facilitator for other youth members’ leadership growth. As a Shinnyo-en youth, I am encouraged to explore my interests and engage with my fellow youths. As a youth leader, I encourage other youths to do the same and advocate for them to the temple leaders. I participated in these conference workshops with both roles in mind.

My favorite aspect of the conference was hearing the youth voices. During the Student Showcases, I met a young man, Nico, from New York City who started a collaboration between local bakeries and places of worship. Nico was delivering food and essential supplies to the elderly during the pandemic when he noticed that the boxes were drab and unwelcoming. With that observation, he wanted to start a project that would make someone’s day brighter and more joyful. So, he sought out a support from the local council and started reaching out to other organizations. In the process, he realized that many faith groups have a specific bread that they enjoy during their religious festivals or holidays. He selected and contacted select bakeries based on the community need, raised funds to purchase the bread, and donated to churches, synagogues, and other faith groups. Through his service-learning, he is able to create more interfaith opportunities among the participating faith groups and feed his community, as well as support local businesses that might have had to close due to the pandemic. Nico’s approach was so unique and inspiring to me. I really enjoyed speaking with him and all of the other youth presenters.

Moving forward I would like to start integrating my conference learning into my Shinnyo-en practice by first sharing it with the temple leaders, the youth who attend my monthly Zoom gatherings, and youth leaders in the other Shinnyo-en USA districts. I would also like to hold a gathering with the students in our youth group specifically to ask about their concerns, discuss common issues, and allow free-flowing discussions. One of the workshops stressed that many youths don’t participate in service-learning because of the various barriers that they experience. By starting service-learning as early as possible, these students could have a more natural transition into leadership positions when they become young adults. As the newly-appointed Hawaii Youth Association Chief, I would like to engage the local Shinnyo-en youth leaders in the IPARD process and go through the steps together with them so that our future community service activities do not end after just one day, but continue as a cycle. Thank you and Namu Shinnyo.”

Thank you, Leticia, for allowing us to share your reflection and scrapbook photos with others.

The National Youth Leadership Council is planning for the 33rd National Service-Learning Conference from April 21st to 23rd in-person in Minneapolis, MN in 2022. If you are interested in the Foundation’s sponsorship for your participation as a Shinnyo-en youth in the next National Service-Learning Conference, please first contact your local Youth Association Chief, Sub-Chiefs or the Temple Manager.