An act of service can have ripple effects.

Students at Desert Academy learned in the last year that the positive impacts of serving the community begin with those who serve.

As a new service learning program at the small, private International Baccalaureate school came to a close, students and teachers reflected last week on how it had affected their own lives, as well the Santa Fe community. They agreed that community service is one of the best ways to learn.

“It’s not just history class and math lessons,” said Phil Lucero, Desert Academy’s service learning director and athletics director, who oversaw the pilot program for PAWS — Promoting Awareness With Service.

“I’m a firm believer in service learning and the value of giving yourself so that your horizons expand, so the bubble you live in becomes bigger,” Lucero said.

Throughout the school year, he said, Desert students in grades six to 10 participated in service projects every other Wednesday. Many of the projects involved partnerships with nonprofit organizations, such as Generation Human Rights, in which students explored global justice issues; the Santa Fe Council on International Relations, which taught kids how to be ambassadors for the region; and Assistance Dogs of the West, which offered an opportunity to examine policies centering on assistance animals.

Some students collected data and monitored levels of water in and around the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed.

Others spearhead their own projects, including the Desert Press Corps, which focused on using multimedia journalism to raise awareness of various issues, and the Wildcat Club, which organized community activities, such a Halloween Haunted Forest in October.

Every project, Lucero said, was a positive form of “experimental, hands-on activity.”

A small group of sixth to ninth graders, dubbed Food Justice and Activism, partnered with The Food Depot to learn how to fight hunger. The students toured the regional food bank’s facility and spent time over several months packing food boxes.

They also learned about event planning and fundraising, said the group’s leader, Cameron Sperry, a middle school teacher at Desert.

At the end of the year, Sperry said, the students “came up with the ultimate project of doing a tabling event at the grocery store.”

One day this spring, they went to Market Street, where they handed shoppers a list of items the food bank needed. And in just one hour, they said, they collected more than 146 pounds of food and $188 in cash — enough to make 873 meals.

“I learned it wasn’t hard to help your community. It feels really good to help,” said 11-year-old Chloe Roberts.

For sophomore Audrey Bohlin, efforts to stir change came through the Press Corps — an avenue to write about “anything we feel passionate about” in relation to politics, the environment and gender issues.

In one edition of the magazine, she said, writers conducted a survey with questions related to immigration; they urged their peers to reflect on the issue and share their opinions.

Engaging people in critical conversations “teaches us that our voices matter,” she said.

Overall, Lucero said, PAWS was a successful pilot program.

Going into the next year, “We certainly have a lot to learn from,” he added.

While some projects will not continue, he said, Food Justice and Activism and other initiatives developed through the pilot program will serve as a “model of how we want to move forward.”

“The best way, I think, to teach kids about the world that we live in is by putting them out there,” Lucero said, “and have them experience firsthand how other people live and how other people deal with adversity.”

Olivia Harlow is digital enterprise producer for Santa Fe New Mexican