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Section 5. Developing a Community Leadership Corps: A Model for Service-Learning

Learn how to positively impact your community while teaching future leaders the skills they'll need to continue the effort to build healthy communities.


  • What is service-learning?

  • What is a community leadership corps?

  • Why develop a community leadership corps?

  • When is a good time to develop a community leadership corps?

  • Who should be involved in developing a community leadership corps?

  • How do you go about developing a community leadership corps?

What is service-learning?

Service-learning is an educational method that emphasizes learning through community service. You're likely to find as many different ways of organizing service-learning experiences as there are people who believe in it, but the following characteristics are generally accepted as being parts of the concept of service-learning:

  • Students or youth participate in carefully organized community service placements.
  • They receive some sort of orientation or training.
  • Placements are coordinated by your organization, along with an educational institution, community service program or organization, and other groups in the community.
  • Students or youth usually earn some sort of class credit or are paid for their service.
  • Having the students or youth report on their experiences--through journals, group discussions, and other methods--is an important component that helps them learn from their corps experiences.

Service-learning can be carried out in a wide variety of ways. For example, a church leader could set up an arrangement with the local school district in which youth are recruited to work at a homeless shelter, or a high school could set up a program in which students in the accelerated English classes could help out with an adult literacy program. In this section we will describe a service-learning project that may serve as a model for you. We call it the community leadership corps.

What is a community leadership corps?

A community leadership corps connects students with organizations or initiatives in their communities. Corps participants work for the organizations or initiatives for a pre-determined period of time -- often over a summer break -- and are given the opportunity to do hands-on community health and development work in communities in which they may have a sense of investment (often their hometowns). Most of these are set up as short-term arrangements, but the relationships between student, community organization, and corps coordinators can last much longer (see our example), as hosts and corps members develop working relationships and friendships.

Here at the KU Center for Community Health and Development, we have had our own community leadership corps for several years. The Kansas Community Leadership Corps is a 2-month summer field experience for 10 KU students in creating healthy communities in Kansas. The project recruits, trains, places, and supports students with local community-based organizations and support organizations, such as Kansas Regional Prevention Centers and neighborhood associations. During their placements, corps members communicate with one another through weekly Internet chat room meetings and forums, and they use technical assistance resources available through the Community Tool Box.

Why develop a community leadership corps?

There are many reasons why you might want to think about developing a community leadership corps. A community leadership corps can do many things:

  • Provide a relevant, significant, "real world" educational experience for students who participate
  • Teach positive values, leadership, citizenship, and personal responsibility
  • Invite and encourage students to become active members of their own communities
  • Teach job skills and prepare students for life after school
  • Contribute your outreach efforts to local community, the state, and beyond
  • Increase school-community collaboration and partnerships
  • Help with community education
  • Contribute many hours of service to people in need, non-profit agencies, private sector companies, and governmental agencies
  • Give students a greater understanding of the issues in their communities, and equip them to make intelligent decisions about those issues in their later careers and civic lives.

When is a good time to develop a community leadership corps?

While you can set up service-learning opportunities any time, a community leadership corps may be most useful for you after your organization has created its strategic plan and developed relationships with strategic partners. You can use these partners as host groups for the corps members and the corps members can give your partners a boost in carrying out strategic activities: a perfect win-win situation.

Who should be involved in developing a community leadership corps?

For a community leadership corps to work, it is crucial to have strong, well-established partnerships in place. At the very least, you will need to have partnerships between the institution or organization that recruits and supports the students or youth and the individual organizations where they will be placed. At the other end of the spectrum, a partnership may be a full-scale community collaboration in which schools, agencies, community members, youth, city government, and businesses all work together to design and implement a system-wide service learning initiative.

How do you go about developing a community leadership corps?

If possible, secure resources and support.

A community leadership corps doesn't require a lot of resources or funds, although having them really enhances the effort. At the least, it will take some of your time to develop the relationships between your organization, sources of youthful talent such as churches or schools, and the host organizations where the corps members will be placed. You will also need to provide some training (but that may only be an afternoon orientation) and provide some support to both the corps members and the host organizations as needed.

On the other hand, when it comes to giving resources to support youth development, community businesses and civic groups often find a community leadership corps attractive. A local civic group or the host organization itself may be willing to provide support: perhaps an honorarium, or a minimum wage salary for the corps member during the placement could be arranged. Regional foundations may find this an interesting project as well. The KU leadership corps was supported by a grant from a state agency and our corps members were placed in communities across the state. A community leadership corps benefits not only the youth and host organization, but can help your organization or partnership reach its goals, too. Given these benfits, it might be well worth the effort to raise the resources.

Identify host organizations and any additional partners.

The first step is to find organizations that will host a corps member. This should start simply, with inquiries to a handful of organizations you know. The KU program, for example, connected students with regional prevention centers throughout the state. (The Center for Community Health and Development had worked previously with many of them, knew their need for more people, and wanted to support theirefforts.) Ideally, these would be organizations with which you've already established some sort of working relationship, but you may well find that the offer of setting up an organization with a community leadership corps volunteer is a great way to begin a relationship between your office or organization and theirs.

Other partners will be the organizations where potential corps members can be found, such as educational institutions or churches.

Approach your potential host organizations and any other potential partners with your proposal. This approach might take the form of a simple phone call, if you know people in the organization well, or it might involve a more formal written proposal. Explain what sort of arrangement you'd like to enter into, and the responsibilities that each of you would take on to make it work. Once the corps is established you may find that organizations come to you requesting the opportunity to host a corps member.

A worksheet to help you identify potential partners appears in Tools at the end of this section.

Identify host organization needs.

The next step is for your and the host organization to develop a list of goals or activities the community leadership corps volunteers can help with. What short-term projects do they have that a student volunteer might be able to help with during a leadership corps placement? Are there any ongoing projects with which students might be able to get some hands-on experience? Are there any projects the host organization has always wanted to take on, but has never had the staff to attempt them (and could such projects be conducted by student volunteers)?

Make sure the host organizations remain realistic in terms of the corps members’ abilities and how much time they will have to complete their tasks. Giving students too little to do (e.g., merely answering phones and copying ) doesn't afford them the experience they need to truly learn from their corps placement; giving them too much (e.g., managing a large or complex project without much guidance) can be overwhelming and frustrating. You and the host organization should carefully work through – in more than one conversation – what kinds of help they need, what kinds of opportunities they can offer, and what kinds of support they can provide.

If a host organization is at a loss for ideas for projects for its corps participant (s), you may need to assist it with some suggestions. You might also come up with things for students to do based on their own backgrounds and experiences after they've been placed; we will offer some suggestions for this later on in this section.

Recruit students.

Finding students to participate in your community leadership corps depends largely on the scale of your efforts. If you only seek a few students, you can simply talk to professors or teachers in the appropriate departments or subjects (for example, public health, civics, social work, psychology) and ask them to recommend students they think would be good candidates for the leadership corps. For example, if you are recruiting from a high school, then classes for gifted students, school counselors, or service clubs may be places to recruit from. If your corps is going to be larger in scale, you may decide to advertise or use other methods of getting the word out. The Kansas Community Leadership Corps, which places about 10 students each summer, recruits its students through flyers, word of mouth, and classified advertisements.

Be careful not to focus only on the best students, especially in a high school program. Look also for students who may not be high achievers or involved in extracurricular activities, but who might benefit greatly from the being given responsibility and asked to do something meaningful. A great deal of human potential is wasted because it’s never recognized. Don’t fall into the trap of creating a program only for those who are already successful. The opportunity for community service may bring out the unseen talents and potential of those who’ve already been written off by school and society. Don’t waste the chance to let them shine.

That said, be careful not to set anyone up for failure, either. Make sure that all volunteers, and especially those who haven’t shown the work ethic and persistence they might need as corps members, get the support and encouragement they need, and aren’t handed tasks they can’t accomplish. Look for students that you think can be successful if they’re given that support and encouragement, even if they haven’t been successful in a school context.

Having an application form for students to complete makes the entire process equitable by having all potential participants submit the same information. It provides a means by which you can judge the applicants' readiness for this type of intensive field experience. The Kansas Community Leadership Corps requires each applicant to fill out a form, write an essay on building healthy communities, and submit a college transcript, a resume, and two letters of reference.

After application materials are collected, select the students who best possess the qualities you see as important for work in your leadership corps. Here at KU, we look for students who are academically solid and have demonstrated experience or interest in community service. You may find that other characteristics are important to you, depending on your goals and the goals of your corps partners.

Identify student interests.

You will want to personally interview all corps applicants to further assess their qualifications and potential, as well as to determine their interests. Their interests are often related to experiences they have had in other community or volunteer activities, but you will want to learn more about their values, as well as their personal and career goals and how they might fit with the opportunities available with your host partners. This information should help you screen the applicants. Experience, commitment, and capacity are criteria you might use in the selection process.

If you’re including students who have potential, but may not have yet shown the level of commitment and capacity described here, you’ll have to think about recruitment in a different way.

Have students shown commitment in other areas of their lives? (You don’t learn skateboard tricks without an enormous amount of commitment, for example, even if you show no commitment to finishing your homework. A dedicated skateboarder has the commitment and capacity you’re looking for, although he may not apply it to school activities.) Could responsibility change the student’s perspective on herself and the world? Might the service experience help her understand her own potential and cause her to change her priorities? These are the kinds of questions you should ask if you’re recruiting students who may seem, in some ways, to be unlikely prospects for a community service corps.

Now that you've decided which students will be involved with your community leadership corps, it's time to start figuring out where their placements will be. The first part of this is identifying the students' interests.

Part of this can be discerned from the student's application essay and interview; you can learn more about what sort of work the students may wish to do by talking with them about their personal goals, issues they care about, and in what communities they'd like to do their corps work.

When you put this information together, be sure to make a note in each student's file of her individual interests. This will help you make good placements later on. Your task is to match applicant interest with host organization need. If you’re recruiting high school students who haven’t taken on responsibility before, you’ll have to think carefully about which organizations can provide the kind of support they need, and can allow them to grow into the job.

You should also think about matching student personalities with organizational cultures. A student who has little patience for authority probably won’t do well in a hierarchical organization, whereas a more democratic one might not only be comfortable for him, but might also help him understand that authority is not always unnecessary or power-oriented.

Train students.

How you train your corps members -- and how much training you give them -- depends on how much time and funding you have, who they are, and what kinds of placements they’re likely to go into. One way to give college students some academic background in community development is to have them take some related college courses before doing their corps placements. Kansas Community Leadership Corps participants usually take such classes as "Building Healthy Communities", "Community Leadership", or "Community Health and Development" the semester before their corps placement.

Kansas Community Leadership Corps members also take part in a two-day orientation institute after their placements have been determined, but before they go into the field.

Some of the topics covered in the Kansas Community Leadership Corps orientation include:

  • Corps roles and responsibilities
  • Service and leadership
  • Building healthy communities
  • Models for community change
  • Group discussion about skills and tasks
  • Group exercises for getting to know your community, facilitation skills and leadership, and strategic planning and planning interventions
  • Community evaluation

Some other areas that might be covered in a training might be interpersonal skills (particularly treating everyone with respect and establishing relationships with people from other cultures or backgrounds); conflict resolution skills; and basic facts about the living conditions of people in poverty, particular diseases or medical conditions, political situations, and other real-world issues they might encounter.

The amount and level of training depends on the type of corps applicants (e.g., college students, high school students, church youth). You will need to gauge the amount of training they need to prepare them for the placement. The training you provide should be broad and general in nature. Training and support for the specific activities (e.g., web page design, developing a directory of services, coordinating a public event) during the placement is the responsibility of the host group. You will need to motivate as well as allay fears. Some leadership training can also be an important component here. Part E of the Community Tool Box is devoted to Leadership, Management, and Group Facilitation and may be useful to you in this.

Match students with host organizations.

Aim for a "win/win" arrangement--one that is beneficial for the student as well as the host organization. In matching students with their host organizations, there are several factors to keep in mind:

  • Each student's experiences, goals, and interests
  • The goals of the host organizations
  • Location of host organization (we try to match students with organizations in their hometowns or other communities in which they feel personally invested); keep in mind that transportation may be an issue for youth.

There are many ways you can creatively match student interests and background with an appropriate host organization. For example, a student who has worked on a campus committee that does entertainment programming could be matched with a host organization that hopes to have her organize a benefit concert, or a pre-vet student might work with the county humane society to set up a pet therapy program in local nursing homes.

Here are a few examples of things that Kansas Community Leadership Corps (KCLC ) participants have done during their placements:

  • Melinda Carden, who was a KCLC participant in the summer of 1999, was interested in working with Latino communities as well as the aging. One of the things she did as part of her placement with the Wyandotte County Regional Prevention Center was to develop (including writing and translating) Spanish language training materials for foster grandparents in the Hispanic community of Wyandotte County.
  • Christina Harms participated in the summer of 1998. Before her KCLC placement she had volunteered with various agencies and organizations that help the homeless, and she had also been involved in peer sexual health education. During her placement with the Regional Prevention Center of Wichita/Sedgwick County, Christina worked with homeless youth in Wichita to promote AIDS awareness and reduce drug use.
  • Ameshia Tubbs, who participated in the KCLC during the summer of 1999, was involved in several student organizations at KU that centered around African American issues and culture, and she was also very involved in her church. In her placement with Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Douglas County, she worked on recruiting mentors from local churches and also prepared a report on recruiting people from diverse ethnic and cultural groups.

Once matches are made, a good way to help the corps member and host create a successful experience is to have them work together to negotiate and write up a service-learning agreement that lays out the responsibilities of each. This way, everyone is clear on what is expected of them before the work begins. It helps them clarify their goals, plan the steps to reach them, determine the level of support needed, and describe how each of them will tell whether they've succeeded. You can find a template for one of these agreements in the Tools at the end of this section.

Monitor, support, and supervise students during their placements.

Even with agreements signed in advance, it's important to monitor corps participants during their work in the field. All volunteers – and especially high school and college students, who may not have a great deal of work or life experience – need support and supervision. The ideal is regular (perhaps wekly or every other week) individual or group meetings with a supervisor from your institution (usually the person who coordinates the program from your end). Here, they can describe their experience, lay out problems to work on, receive feedback, and get praise and support for their effort and their progress toward their goals.

Supervision here doesn’t mean someone looking over students’ shoulders waiting for them to make mistakes, but rather feedback and the opportunity to think through their work, examine what they’ve done, and determine how they might better handle difficult situations or people. It’s a time to talk through problems both with the work itself and with the people they work with. The goal is to improve performance, not to find fault. If it’s done properly, supervision should be immensely helpful for those supervised. It should be enjoyable and satisfying enough that they look forward to it.

The KU program reviews progress halfway through the summer, revisiting the agreements to see how well the goals of the corps members and the host organizations are being met and how best to support both hosts and volunteers. We also stay in regular contact with representatives of the host organizations to make sure they are pleased with their corps participants’—work, and we try to make at least one site visit. The more corps members are clustered in a single town – as they would be if the program consuisted of high school students – the easier it is to make site visits and meet regularly with students.

Allow students, hosts, and sponsors to reflect on the experience.

One of the benefits to corps members is the learning they gain from the experience. In order for that learning to take place, there has to be thoughtful reflection on the experience, reflection that takes place in serenity, not in the heat of the moment. In addition to the weekly or biweekly supervision sessions described above, you can support reflective learning in a number of ways:

E-mail, Web-based forums, and chat rooms or instant messaging can be easy ways to contact supervisors or other students for support, advice, or help thinking through problems in between meetings.

Journals kept daily, provide a record of students’ work while it’s still fresh in their minds, and help them both reconstruct events and their reactions to them, and to think about how they might have done things differently. These journals could be turned in at intervals for feedback from supervisors and as a record of the work, and could also serve as a base for supervision by providing topics to discuss.

Online or print information, of which the Community Tool Box is a perfect example, can also be extremely helpful when particular issues arise or particular problems need to be solved.


This may seem like a step you could possibly skip, but we feel it's vital. Having a celebration of some sort allows all the partners in your leadership corps -- host organizations, students, community leaders, educators, and others -- to come together to recognize the students for their hard work and the host organizations for giving the students this learning opportunity.

Your celebration might take the form of a big party or an awards banquet (which is what the Kansas Community Leadership Corps does), or you may come up with your own unique way to applaud everyone's efforts. However you decide to do it, this is a celebration of community effort.

Example: Kansas Community Leadership Corps Recognition Dinner

The Kansas Community Leadership Corps held its second annual recognition dinner in the fall of 1999 at the Eldridge Hotel, a charming and historic old hotel in downtown Lawrence.

The evening opened with a welcome and introductions from Jerry Schultz, the director of the corps, and then everyone enjoyed dinner together. After the meal there were remarks given by Reginald Robinson, the chair of the KU Public Service Taskforce, and Andrew O'Donovan, the commissioner of the Kansas Office of Prevention. Representatives of the host organizations each took a few minutes to honor their corps members. This part of the evening meant the most to the corps members, as these representatives of the host organizations had developed the closest relationships with the participants.

The evening concluded with presentations from corps members about the work they did during their placements and what they learned from their experiences.

Here are a few examples of some of the things students did as part of their placements:

  • Emily Williams, who was placed with Safe Streets, organized?Night Out?, a community -wide event that brought together neighborhoods, law enforcement, and city services in Topeka.
  • Erica Swanholm, who was placed with Rosedale Development Associates, organized a neighborhood beautification project.
  • Fermin Santos, who was placed with the Regional Prevention Center of Johnson, Miami, and Leavenworth Counties, developed a media literacy course on alcohol and tobacco.
  • Kristen Elliott, who was placed with the Social Norms Media Campaign, conducted focus groups to develop media messages to prevent binge drinking.

Parents were also on hand to watch their sons and daughters receive their certificates of achievement. Host organizations also received certificates of recognition for their support of corps members.

In Summary:

Using service-learning is a great way to positively impact your community while teaching future leaders the skills they'll need to continue the effort to build healthy communities. The most powerful learning experiences occur when ideas are put into practice. The corps members return from their placements matured and tempered by their experiences. If you decide to start a community leadership corps, we're sure you'll find it to be rewarding for yourself, the host organizations that get involved, and the participants.

Chris Hampton
Jerry Schultz

Online Resources

Community colleges and service learning. American Association of Community Colleges. (1995).

Encore Leadership Corps: Promising Practices from Year One by the University of Maine Center on Aging. 

Teen Leadership Corps, an example syllabus.

Print Resources

Crews, R. (1995). The University of Colorado at Boulder service-learning handbook. Boulder, CO: The University of Colorado--Boulder Student Employment and Service -Learning Center.

Whitaker, U. (1989). Assessing learning: Standards, principles and procedures. Philadelphia, PA: Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.