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App That Matches Students With Community Service Takes a Virtual Pivot During Pandemic & Opens Up Fresh Opportunities

By Tim Newcomb | January 26, 2021

(Treedom.co)

Michael Kadisha wanted to make it easy for students to engage in meaningful community service. So last year, the 26-year-old entrepreneur launched the Treedom app, helping to connect high school students to local partners. But while Treedom had some early success after its fall 2019 launch, its entire model was built upon in-person connections. The pandemic forced a change, one that has turned Treedom toward the virtual and opened up new worlds for students.

“Everything we offered was a physical event,” the Treedom founder and CEO says. “We didn’t know how much that was interrupting the true value and potential of what this could be. It became an equity and access issue where kids couldn’t get to opportunities. Once we figured out that we can have virtual opportunities, virtual projects, set up mentorship opportunities via Zoom or events where students can listen in on a strategy or budgeting conversation and be exposed to these opportunities, it was so impactful and so important.”

The app is used by 50,000 students across 50 schools in six states, from the East Coast to the West. It aims to make connections both for students who must put in mandatory community service hours to graduate high school and for others who are passionate and want to get involved or learn but don’t know how to fill that void. By linking virtually, Kadisha says, Treedom extends the walls of the classroom. And those connections can happen anywhere.

For example, Treedom set up Los Angeles students in both district and charter high schools to support the YWCA’s Stand Against Racism Campaign by posting information and photos on social media and using the YWCA’s materials to help start conversations about racism; make cards for developmentally disabled individuals; connect with shut-in seniors; contact local legislators to advocate for causes they believe in; and bake cookies that they delivered to the homeless during the pandemic.

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But there were also opportunities to volunteer to transcribe research with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and with the Citizen Science Alliance, an online community of scientists and educators working to further the public understanding of science and the scientific process. One student who helped with the alliance wrote: “I actually learned a lot from categorizing auroras because I never knew there were different ways they moved, or that there were distinct shapes that they came in.”

Treedom also hosted students interested in astronomy at a webinar led by the director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “If we can leverage our network and put students in touch with people and ask any questions they want,” Kadisha says, “if that works, we can replicate that over and over again and have that be high quality and high touch and show students that the world is truly accessible.”

Kadisha, who is originally from Los Angeles, has a particular focus both on helping low-income students. But the original model of connecting high schoolers to physical events presented transportation challenges Treedom struggled to overcome. “The students didn’t have cars and parents were working two jobs and weren’t home,” he says about high schoolers in East L.A. “The opportunities were often in West L.A., a 45-minute to 90-minute drive after school.”

Now, those connections can happen virtually. And Kadisha sees additional shifts coming. He expects Treedom will soon open to more individuals, not just students referred by their schools, and will launch a “missions” angle within the next year. Instead of simply connecting students with a set service or learning opportunity, one of 750 “missions” will encourage students to tackle a local project while being guided by a Treedom-provided mentor.

For example, a student may work with a local restaurant to eliminate single-use plastic. Kadisha says this style of community engagement doesn’t necessitate a community partner per se but gives passionate students resources as they direct their own learning. “It still implies impact, leadership, advocacy and career-technical skills,” Kadisha says. “In order to accomplish that goal, there are a lot of steps and you have to be a leader.” The self-directed aspect of the mission allows students to personalize their learning, with mentors specific to the cause steering them through the experience.

Treedom will soon have a mix of experiences students can participate in and projects they can find a mentor to help with. “It really only takes one experience, one moment of exposure to plant a seed that can grow into a beautiful tree,” Kadisha says. “If we can plant those seeds from a young place and expose students to opportunities, then we are convinced as a company it can really be the difference for a student.”

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