A Culture of Philanthropy
Photography by Quy Tran
The students of today are the world changers of tomorrow. At St. John’s School in Houston, TX, the teachers and staff believe in this statement and have taken on the job of honing their students into capable and caring individuals, ready to take on the world’s problems. Established in 1946, the school was founded on the belief that they should develop the growth of the whole child, including individual, spiritual, intellectual, social, physical, and ethical development. The school states that it has established a “culture of philanthropy” for its students to learn in and encourages its students to participate in charitable activities in the Houston community and abroad. St. John’s School has an impressive record of charitable work, with its upper school students clocking over 45,000 hours of service a year (an average of 78 hours per student), yet these same students maintain equally impressive, superior academic scores.
Hoping to learn more about this inspiring school’s practices, we sat down with Mark Desjardins, headmaster of St. John’s School. Demonstrating that he practices what he teaches, Headmaster Desjardins serves on multiple boards, on top of his busy duties as headmaster. He’s a board member of Independent Schools of the Southwest Association, a collection of schools dedicated to high educational standards, and KIPP Public Schools and Breakthrough Houston and San Francisco, organizations that help underprivileged youth achieve academic excellence. He also helps students gain opportunities to learn in culturally diverse locations by serving with College Year in Athens and School Year Abroad. With such a remarkable record of success and philanthropy, CKW Luxe was excited to get insight on St John’s philosophy and be inspired by their commitment to motivate others to give back.
Interview with headmaster of St. John’s School
CKW Luxe: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What inspired you to be the headmaster for St. John’s School?
Mark Desjardins: I’m in my sixth year of being the head of St. John’s and in my 17th year of being head of school. I grew up in Austin, TX, so I’m happy to be here in Texas, and I love the mission of the school, so I was inspired by the mission of developing the whole child.
CKW: What is the school’s mission regarding students’ participation in volunteer work and giving back to the community?
MD: When the school was founded in 1946, the founders were very clear that it was important for the graduates to not only give back to the city of Houston, but also to give back to the country. From its earliest conception, St. John’s was a school that was positioned to have an impact much larger than this particular campus.
CKW: The website for St. John’s School says that the school focuses on a “culture of philanthropy.” What does this culture look like and involve?
MD: At every grade level, we introduce students to the importance of giving back. We believe very strongly in St. Luke’s notion, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” We start working with the kids at an early age and let them know that it’s really important for them to use their talents to help those around them and those beyond the walls of the school to become better people. Then we work closely with our parents, graduates, and volunteers, who understand that we rely on their time and their dollars, more than what they spend on tuition, to provide great opportunities for the students here. Everything we do is dependent upon having a culture of giving back.
CKW: How many service organization’s does St. John’s School work with?
MD: Too many to name! To give an example, in the upper school, we have 575 students. Last year, those students in the upper school donated 45,000 hours of community service, which is pretty incredible. Their services cover a wide range, including working with Habitat for Humanity, traveling to Costa Rica or South America, hosting Special Olympics, and working with food banks. There’s almost not an organization in Houston in which our kids are not involved in some significant way. We’re very proud of that.
CKW: How does St. John’s motivate students to get involved and help address community issues?
MD: It is part of our mission. When kids come here, they see that it’s embedded in the culture, this notion of giving back, and we start early. In the lower school, K-5th, and even into the middle school grades, 6th-8th, we call our volunteer programs “sweat equity,” meaning that we want kids to go out and do something meaningful, not hold a food drive or hold a money raising initiative. We want them to get out and do something physical in the community, whether that’s raking leaves, restocking cans at the food bank, or wrapping Christmas gifts. As you get into the high school, it is an elective program; it’s not a mandatory program. We believe very strongly that service should be something that comes from the heart, and this is wrapped into our daily routine and daily rituals. It’s hard for kids to graduate from St. John’s and not be motivated to participate in community service opportunities.
CKW: Why is it important for kids to give back to the community while they are still young?
MD: It develops habits. It’s just like reading and writing and doing math problems, the earlier you do it, the earlier you plant those seeds, the more it becomes part of the inner being of an individual. They then grow up with an understanding that it is important for them to always focus on reaching out and helping others. The sooner you start the better the chances are for that habit to be continued for a lifetime.
CKW: How do charitable activities positively affect the development of the students? Does it improve their academics?
MD: Yes, and it’s all about creating a mindset, a mindset that is focused on utilizing your gifts to make those around you better. Those individuals that tend to gravitate towards opportunities in which they are giving back develop a greater sense of appreciation for who they are. They have a better understanding of the world around them. One of the things that we try to instill in our students is a sense of intellectual empathy, meaning understanding where others, who may not share your point of view, are coming from. One of the best ways to achieve that is by immersing yourself in the many problems that this world has. Whether they work in areas of environmental, housing, food, or safety concern, our kids can apply the lessons they’ve learned, and it makes them better, more well-rounded people.
CKW: What does a typical day for a St. John student look like?
MD: Busy...that’s what I can say! Most of our kids are at school by 7:30 am. Often, they are also involved in lots of extracurricular activities, whether it is the fine arts, athletics, or community service, so they get home around 6pm. They have several hours of homework to do. Then they come back, and they do it again. Our kids are probably some of the busiest kids in any school or community in the Houston area.
CKW: How do you teach them to manage their time so they can participate in volunteer work?
MD: We do this by helping them understand, prioritize, and develop that mindset and discipline, developing daily rituals and routines that enable them to be able to accomplish their tasks, and doing so in a way that juggles their various responsibilities. This creates opportunities for them to not only do what we as a school expect of them, but also gives them a chance to participate in activities outside the school community.
CKW: What expectations do you have for the parents of students at St. John’s School? How do the parents stay involved in charitable activities?
MD: The word that we use with our parents over and over again is partnership. We want our parents to be partners with us in the educational development of their children, and as a part of that, we ask them from the outset to buy into our mission and to understand that our mission involves not just their children’s academic development, physical development, or spiritual development, but also their sense of service and giving back to the community. We’re very intentional about the message we give to parents. If you’re going to come into this community, you’re going to have to buy into the fact that it is more than just doing homework. There’s this whole notion of, again, that same St. Luke belief, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” We expect our kids to be engaged in areas and activities that are outside of the gates of St. John’s.
CKW: What advice would you give to parents who are trying to teach their children the importance of giving back?
MD: The single most important thing parents can do is role model the behaviors that they expect their children to have. In my own situation, there are seven nonprofit boards that I sit on. Often, I’ll come home from work around 6pm, eat dinner, and then have to leave for a meeting, and my kids will wonder why I have to leave again. I explain to them that the organizations I volunteer for are making the community a better place, and it’s my job, given the privilege of my position, to make sure that I’m spending my time giving back in deeply meaningful ways. I believe that parents who role model the expectations of giving back are doing the single most important thing that parents can do. You hope that your kids will emulate the expectations that you’ve set out before them.
CKW: What final words of advice would you like to give our readers, children and adults, to inspire them to be world changers?
MD: The three most important things that I like to communicate, not just to my children, but to the students that I get a chance to work with are: Never sacrifice your integrity. Work as hard as you can, develop a work ethic, and never be out of work. Then, this is the last thing, always use your God-given talents to reach out and make those around you better. If you do those three things, you will have a wonderfully fulfilling life, in whatever path you decide to pursue.
St. John’s School demonstrates what is needed to help students succeed in school: top quality educators, staff that cares and gets involved in helping students find a meaningful life, and a study environment that is soothing, calming, and supportive. The teachings and practices at St. John’s School are an inspiration to any who want to make a positive change in the world and for those who want to inspire youth to get involved. They are a reminder that while academic excellence is important, ethical and moral upstanding is equally as important. Those who have should give, and those who can should do. Whether it is physical strength, intelligence, a caring heart, monetary wealth, or the ability to unite others, each of us has our own special gifts that we can use to bless the world, and it is our responsibility and calling to do so.