Gaining Wisdom by Giving Back: Helping Gifted Young People Help Others
Delisle, J. & Schwinger, E.
Gifted Education Communicator
California Association for the Gifted
Vol. 43, No. 3
Fall 2012

Co-authored by noted gifted expert Jim Delisle and the Davidson Institute's own Erik Schwinger, this article takes a look at the Davidson Institute's Ambassador Program and provides information on mentoring and giving back.

In many ways, Ethan is just like any other teenager growing up in suburban America. While not in school, he enjoys basketball, volleyball, and computer games with friends and playing guitar with his brother. However, there is one thing that sets Ethan apart from most other young people his age. For the past 3 years, he has focused much of his energy on growing and building his community service project: Music to My Ears ( Music to My Ears is an all-volunteer organization consisting of Ethan’s team of middle and high school students who provide music lessons to elementary school-aged children. Ethan founded Music to My Ears in 2009 when budget cuts at his local school forced the closure of its strings program. Since then, Ethan has provided music lessons to nearly 60 children, his team of 18 volunteer teachers logging more than 800 service hours in two chapter locations (his hometown of Mechanicsville, VA and a second location in Fredericksburg, MD). Ethan is presently working with a young lady in Texas to develop a third chapter, and several other friends of his have expressed interest as well. Ethan currently has a waiting list of students for his next session and is providing consultation for other musicians to start chapters of Music To My Ears in their own towns by utilizing the structure he has developed.

While certainly an exceptional young man in many ways, Ethan is not alone. He is one of a growing number of young social entrepreneurs to realize—at a very early age—that they have the power within themselves to make a difference on the issues that matter most to them. In addition to being tremendously dedicated to service, Ethan is also an intellectually gifted young man. In 2007 he was accepted as a Davidson Young Scholar ( a free membership organization designed to nurture and support profoundly intelligent young people ages 5-18 years old. In 2009, Ethan submitted an application and project proposal for Music to My Ears to participate in the Davidson Young Scholars Ambassador Program (YSAP). The Ambassador Program, designed to foster learning and civic engagement through community service and leadership, includes an 18 month training process which challenges young people to identify a problem or an unmet need in their community (or in the world at-large), and then propose, design, build, and manage their very own service ventures aimed at addressing that problem or meeting that need.

The Ambassador Program includes a series of 8 one-week long online seminars, administered no more frequently than once per month over the course of a calendar year, on the following topics: writing a strategic business plan, self-advocacy, interpersonal communication, website design, leadership, philanthropy, fundraising, and public/media relations. The online seminars present content and discussion aimed at providing the Ambassadors with specific feedback about their projects and ideas, along with the confidence and skills to move forward towards their goals.

Another key feature of the Ambassador Program is personalized support and guidance from a program advisor. The role of the advisor is not to tell the Ambassadors what to do or how to do it, but rather to facilitate the figuring of that out on their own. Because of the broad range of issues the Ambassadors choose to take action on (they are free to choose anything as long as it is service-oriented), the advisors are usually not experts in those fields, nor do they need to be. Because this is a true experiential method, there is plenty of trial and error (setbacks and successes are both common) but in the Ambassador Program, that is all part and parcel of the learning process. Critical thinking, resilience, creative problem solving and learning to deal with obstacles and challenges when they arise are a few of the latent benefits of participating in the Ambassador Program.

The Young Scholars Ambassador Program is the brainchild of Davidson Institute for Talent Development (DITD) Co-founder Jan Davidson. Having built the Davidson Institute into a nationally recognized nonprofit organization, Jan still felt more could be done to encourage and develop a philanthropic mindset among these highly gifted young people. Her well known quote “if you have the ability to help others, you have the responsibility to do so” provided inspiration for, and remains a guiding principle of, the Ambassador Program.

Far from a traditionally structured service-learning approach, which typically requires much preparation and reflection inside the classroom, the Ambassador Program looks more like a college-level independent study course. Once accepted into the program, students complete a series of low-intensity requirements (the online seminars), punctuated by periodic check-ins and reporting to their advisor for updates, suggestions and advice. This process is stretched over the course of 18 months from beginning to end, allowing plenty of time for their projects to incubate and develop organically. The onus of responsibility to meet their personal and project goals lies squarely on the shoulders of the Ambassadors, the majority of whom are middle and early high school aged. It is a lot of responsibility, but when provided with the appropriate tools for the job, they almost always exceed expectations and deliver in a big way.

Connecting Philanthropy with Social Studies Curriculum

In 1994, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) published national curriculum standards for the first time. In defining social studies as “the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote social competence” (National Council for the Social Studies, p. 1) NCSS transformed social studies from a “who fought which battle in what year” focus, to one that sought to mesh the many dimensions involved in true civic competence. Thus, disciplines such as anthropology, economics, geography, philosophy, political science and religion came under this broad umbrella of “social studies.” The ultimate NCSS goal was to “help young people make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.” (NCSS, p. 1)

To call the Ambassador Program a traditional “social studies curriculum” would be a misnomer. There is no formal instruction on American government, economics, political science, or world civilizations. However, the Ambassador Program does go a long way towards meeting the NCSS goals, which are not always addressed in traditional social studies classrooms. Depending on the projects these students decide to take on, some may end up learning a great deal about a particular aspect of American culture, economics, politics or governance, while others may get a crash course in international matters such as globalization, natural resource depletion, illiteracy, or poverty. The hands-on context within which the Ambassadors experience these issues (and develop their own solutions) is much more powerful than anything they could ever glean from reading a textbook. Also, in considering the ten themes that NCSS believes essential in the development of competent citizens (see Box 1); we find considerable overlap in these themes and the ones that emerge through the various Ambassadors’ projects. Let’s consider just two additional projects that are ongoing now by Ambassadors who recently completed the program.

Sachin and Elizabeth

When Sachin was 13 years old, he observed many of his neighbors throwing computers and other electronics out with their trash. Well aware of the dangers of e-waste, Sachin decided to do something about it. Fast-forward 5 years and Sachin is now the founder of the Community Recycling Campaign for a Better Tomorrow (, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. In addition to recycling and refurbishing thousands of electronics, Sachin and his team have expanded their activities to develop an Adopt-A-School Program in India, raise thousands of dollars for organizations including UNICEF and the Hemophilia Foundation, and have distributed literally tons of clothing to victims of natural disasters throughout the world.

Elizabeth knows firsthand how difficult it is to lose a pet. When her good friend Bubba passed away, she felt compelled to provide supports for other children who experience similar loss. Elizabeth worked diligently to research the grieving process, interviewed individuals who recently lost their own pets and partnered with professionals in cinema and veterinary medicine to develop a comprehensive resource to help young people make sense of, and deal with, losing a pet. In October of 2010 (at 13 years old) she went live with her website, A Hole In My Heart: A Child’s Guide to Pet Loss (, which includes a video that Elizabeth produced. Elizabeth has also partnered with the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital’s Argus Institute to provide her video as a resource on their webpage: Helping Children Through Pet Illness and Death.

The Focus on Independent Inquiry

To fully appreciate the learning processes taking place, one must examine the many layers of independent inquiry that the Ambassadors’ projects contain. First and foremost is the background knowledge that must be gathered before any fieldwork can begin in earnest. The students initiate their own research on whatever issue they feel is important and build a proposal for who, what, where and when they will help, along with well thought-out reasoning for why and how their solution will work. Once that critical (and somewhat academic) first step is completed, it’s on to the real applied work of drafting a strategic business plan and implementing that plan.

Learning firsthand how to be responsible students and citizens by working independently, meeting self-imposed and external deadlines, and developing relationships with other local or national organizations whose missions are similar is the pragmatic layer of this experiential learning process. These young people gain a greater understanding of the interconnectedness—and diversity—of the modern world by interacting directly with it. They more fully appreciate the dynamic nature of the human condition not because it is an abstract concept they read in a textbook, but because it is something they have now experienced firsthand. They are presented with the opportunity to formulate an identity as an active, responsible citizen and gain a better understanding of the “self” in the broader societal context. Most importantly, they come to understand how problems that might seem distant, irrelevant, or insurmountable at first can be addressed locally in methodical ways with everyday actions. They realize that one person can truly make a difference.

As proof of the benefits of this independent inquiry, here is what Sachin and Elizabeth said about their projects’ impacts—on themselves and others:

    I am so fortunate and proud to say that I was part of 2008-2009 Young Scholar Ambassador Program. Through it, I not only learned the skills necessary to start and maintain my community service project, but also skills like leadership and planning that have helped me in every area of my life. The Ambassador Program has helped me learn and practice what community service means and enabled me to continue to learn and grow as a human being. —Sachin

    The Ambassador program provided the training necessary to complete my service project, A Hole in My Heart: A Child’s Guide to Pet Loss. I was unsure how to approach a project of this size. As I continued throughout the webinars, I began to understand how to break the large project into manageable pieces. I interviewed specialists in documentary making and grief counseling. These interviews provided the framework for the content of the DVD. With help from a grief counselor and a local veterinarian, I identified and interviewed children whose personal experiences with pet loss added great value to the finished project. A difficult aspect of this project was fundraising. Again, with help from the documentarian and from my Ambassador Program advisor, I persevered. I wrote grant proposals. It took two years to raise the needed capital for the project, but eventually we did it! —Elizabeth

It might seem odd to talk about projects, which sound more like environmental initiatives or music programs in an article about social studies education. While these projects (and all the Ambassadors’ Projects) focus on issues as diverse as the young people who administer them, the common thread remains: these students are getting “out there” in a service capacity—engaging with their communities, partnering with local and national organizations, drawing on their enthusiasm and passion for a cause, actively building relationships, and learning about the interconnectedness of people from diverse socioeconomic and geographical backgrounds. Importantly, they also learn to recognize voids in the services provided by existing institutions while adding value and strengthening social support networks locally. Becoming engaged citizens and being a force for positive change in their communities not only allows them to enrich their own lives, but the lives of those around them.

Learning Lifelong Lessons

When compared to other students, gifted learners often experience much less challenge inside the regular classroom. Allowing them to step outside the bounds of traditional learning environments and venture out into the “real world” (with appropriate supports, of course) empowers them to take ownership of an issue they see as important and make a tangible difference in the world. This empowerment benefits the gifted young people, who likely experience the world with a high level of intensity, by providing an avenue for them to take action on an issue they feel is important. The experience can be truly transformative on many levels. The goals at the outset of such a venture need not be grandiose. Simple, manageable and achievable goals are key for success at the beginning, but these may certainly give way to revised and more ambitious goals later.

While the Ambassador Program does provide a level of support and structure, the great thing about community service projects such as the ones being completed by these young people is that they can be done anywhere at any time. They may be incorporated as part of a service learning or independent project at school or at home with the help of teachers and parents. No real expertise is needed from the start; it’s a learn-as-you-go adventure! The most important ingredients are a passion to make a difference and healthy doses of resilience and patience when things don’t go as planned. See Box 2 below for a simple outline to getting started.

Back to Ethan

The benefits of truly independent service-learning projects of this scale are many. They provide autonomy and self-confidence for the participating students, as well as aiding others in the process. For example, one of Ethan’s teachers is using her volunteer hours to fulfill community service hours for a scholarship. Another friend of his is thinking about starting a chapter for her senior project next year, and yet another (the young lady from Texas mentioned at the beginning of this article) may eventually apply her experiences managing her proposed chapter for her Gold Award in Girl Scouts. “You don’t have to be completely altruistic for the community to benefit,” Ethan says. “Some of us are just teaching because we enjoy it.”

We asked Ethan who he feels benefits more from his Music to My Ears program, the students receiving the lessons, or the volunteer teachers?

    It is hard to say who benefits more from the program. At first glance it would be the students, since they are gaining knowledge of their musical instrument and have the benefit of their teacher as a role model. However, teachers benefit just as much, if not more, because they gain teaching experience, practice time on their instrument, and life skills such as communication and leadership. Most of all, they have an opportunity to make a positive difference in their communities.

The labor of love Ethan has invested so much time building into a valuable community resource has not gone unnoticed. He has been recognized as a leader in his community with a Prudential Spirit of Community Award, the Presidential Volunteer Service Award, Kids are Heroes®, and has received commendations from the Virginia State Senate and the Maryland Governor’s Office. Not bad for a young man who earlier this year celebrated his 13th birthday!

Marcel Proust said that “we don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.” By encouraging gifted young people to pursue their passions and embark on this journey beyond the classroom in service of the community, such wisdom is acquired one small, important step at a time.

If you would like to learn more about the projects being undertaken by the current group of Young Scholar Ambassadors, visit the Davidson Young Scholars Class of 2013 Ambassadors page by clicking on

Additional Resources Related to Service Learning

  • Generator School Network - Service Learning (
    This site provides students K-college with specific ideas for how to make differences in their local communities. Examples include The EPA Planet Protectors Club For Kids, for elementary students, and On Giants’ Shoulders, a high school-college student-run program that uses web cameras and the Internet to mentor younger students, especially in underserved neighborhoods.
  • State Farm Youth Advisory Board (YAB) (
    The YAB consists of 30, 17-20 year olds from the US and Canada who are charged with helping State Farm design and implement $5 million in annual grants to schools for service learning projects. Examples include the “Farmers Market Project” in Newman, CA, in which students from two high schools grow, harvest and sell fruits and vegetables. Proceeds from the sale of these foods go back to projects designed to aid their local community. The “I-AM” (Inform, Activate, Motivate) College- Bound Project” in Oakland, CA is a student-run program to teach high school peers what it takes to be “college ready”.
  • Global Citizen Year (
    In this program, high-potential graduating high school seniors are selected and trained to do a “gap year” of community service in Africa, Asia or Latin America, working in hospitals, schools, clinics and other person-focused settings.
  • National Service Learning Clearinghouse (NSLC) (
    The NSLC provides a database with hundreds of service learning lesson plans, syllabi and project ideas fro grades K-college. An array of community-based organizations that support service- learning projects is also included.
  • Community Service Scholarships, Grants and other Opportunities (
    Written by the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, this article provides links to many resources that will come in handy for any young person pursuing community service activities.
  • What is Philanthropy (
    Executive Producer Dr. Salvatore Alaimo explores the cultural and societal significance of philanthropy in both historical and contemporary American society.

National curriculum standards for social studies: Executive summary. Accessed at

Davidson Institute's Young Scholars Ambassadors Program

Jim Delisle has worked with gifted children and those who work on their behalf for 33 years. The author of 17 books, including the best-selling Gifted Teen Survival Guide (with Judy Galbraith), Jim’s career has focused on integrating the intellectual and affective lives of gifted young people. He has worked as a consultant for the Davidson Institute since its inception in 1999.

Permission Statement

Permission to reprint this article has been granted to the Davidson Institute by the California Association for the Gifted (CAG).

The appearance of any information in the Davidson Institute's Database does not imply an endorsement by, or any affiliation with, the Davidson Institute. All information presented is for informational purposes only and is solely the opinion of and the responsibility of the author. Although reasonable effort is made to present accurate information, the Davidson Institute makes no guarantees of any kind, including as to accuracy or completeness. Use of such information is at the sole risk of the reader.

Close Window