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Medford after-school program helps students help the world

Four Medford High School students recently built a vegetable and herb garden in the courtyard of the high school. The vegetables and herbs grown in the garden are donated to people in need. Left to right: Naomie Pierre, Baban Gill. Eleanor Nakera, and Oprah Nakera.
Four Medford High School students recently built a vegetable and herb garden in the courtyard of the high school. The vegetables and herbs grown in the garden are donated to people in need. Left to right: Naomie Pierre, Baban Gill. Eleanor Nakera, and Oprah Nakera.

Over the last 14 months, Zayn Yousuf has led 20 cleanup projects in which he and other Medford High School students removed 250 bags of litter and weeds from city neighborhoods.

“It’s nice to see how in two hours you can clean up a place and make it really beautiful, if you put your effort into it,” he said.

Yousuf is one of hundreds of Medford students who have experienced the satisfaction of helping their community through an innovative citywide after-school program. The eight-year-old Center for Citizenship and Social Responsibility prepares young people to be future leaders in tackling societal problems ranging from climate change to racism.

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Through the Medford Public Schools program, fourth- to 12th-grade students have devised and carried out projects ranging from raising funds for a monument to the city’s historic slave population to advocating for a city Styrofoam ban and installing a 3D crosswalk.

“Our mantra is, ‘Make the world a better place, one student at a time,’’' said Rich Trotta, the center’s founding director. “There is so much acrimony and so many negative things going on. This is a positive thing where young people learn early on to care about others, to be compassionate leaders.”

Recently the center, which relies almost entirely on private funding, received a major boost when it was awarded a $350,000, 10-year grant from the Cummings Foundation.

“I’m ecstatic,” said Trotta, a former longtime administrator in the Medford schools who retired in 2018 but continues to work part time as the center director. The grant, which follows a previous $100,000 award from the foundation in 2017, “means we are going to be around for at least 10 more years.”

Trotta founded the center in 2013 based on his longstanding belief that schools should not simply focus on academics, but also on character building.

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Funded at first through a $50,000 grant Trotta secured from Medford native Michael Bloomberg, the center initially offered teacher workshops on integrating social-emotional learning in their classrooms. But after a year, Trotta changed the focus to an after-school program.

Beginning with 18 high school students, the center has grown to include groups at all the city’s schools. In 2018-19, 500 students participated. Due to COVID-19, that number fell to about 150 this year, but Trotta expects at least 500 next year. Teachers at each school serve as the adult advisers, under the mentorship of the program’s lead teacher, Michael Skorker.

Trotta said students gain self-confidence and also discover they can feel good about themselves helping others, a realization it is hoped will inspire them to remain “positive contributors to society.”

“It’s just the place where I can be a better version of myself,” said Medford High School junior Khushdeep Kaur, who is completing her second year of CCSR. “I get to improve all my skills such as speaking and leadership. Also, I’ve made some very reliable and supportive friends.”

As one of her projects, Kaur is working on an ongoing campaign to convince local restaurants not to provide plastic utensils unless customers request them. “Some restaurants have shown an interest.”

A native of India, Kaur also helped plan the 2021 Diversity Week at the high school — held virtually this year — and is currently helping organize the school’s first Kindness Week June 7-11, an event promoting acts of generosity.

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Yousuf and Ellie Hunt, both juniors, have been president of the high school’s CCSR group the past year and will remain in that role next year.

Apart from building leadership skills, “It introduces you to a whole new group of people in the community,” Yousuf, a Bangladeshi native, said of CCSR.

“I just love to see how all the different students use their talents to make changes for the betterment of our community,” said Hunt, whose work with CCSR has included helping lead the campaign to enact a local Styrofoam ban.

“I enjoy being out in nature and have seen the damage we’ve done to our planet,” she said. “I really want to reverse that and keep our planet as clean as possible.”

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.