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Family Project-Based Learning

On August 10th, my youngest son will turn seven. We will celebrate his birthday the same way we have every year since his first birthday: we will host a blood drive.

Andrew Jason, aka AJ, is the youngest of our five boys. While pregnant with him, I was diagnosed with accreta. It sounds pretty, but it is an ugly, nasty, and life-threatening condition that can occur in pregnancy. (Read more about the diagnosis in Here We Go, a blog post I wrote previously).

During AJ’s delivery, I lost my body’s volume of blood and had to receive 14 units in order to survive. When I woke up in the ICU, intubated, sedated, and full of tubes and wires, I knew I was lucky to be alive but I was mostly concerned with my baby. I tried to fight off the sedation and begged via written notes and fingerspelling in sign language for them to remove the tubes that were helping me breathe. I knew that was the path out of ICU and to my baby. I did not get to meet AJ until he was two days old.

Once I met AJ and saw how well he had been cared for in the NICU, I felt better about focusing on my own health. I realized that was the only way I was going to get home and be with my new baby—who was being released from the hospital—and his big brothers and father.

I started asking questions about what happened. I wanted to know how “bad” it was. When the doctors told me they were happy I did not suffer heart, brain, or lung damage, I understood how fortunate I had been. But when I learned about the amount of blood I received, I felt overwhelmed, embarrassed, and ashamed that I had never donated blood.

ALL. THAT. BLOOD. was collected from strangers who had unknowingly saved me and kept our family whole. I took for granted that blood would be there for me when I needed it. From that moment, I knew I needed to do something. I told my husband that we had to hold a blood drive. I wasn’t sure what that entailed or how to even start planning one, but I knew we would make it happen. But first I needed to recover and get home with our new baby and his big brothers.

When AJ was about nine months old, we began to plan our drive. We worked with the American Red Cross and included the boys in the planning conversation. They offered ideas on how to recruit donors and what we could do so the donors would enjoy the experience. On the day of the drive, friends and family came out to celebrate AJ’s first birthday, spend time with our family, and donate blood. It was a very emotional day for all of us. It was a day for us to heal from what we endured, celebrate our family, our friends, and our community. We decided that it would be our tradition to celebrate every year the same way!

Every year people say the kindest things to us about our blood drive. This is very humbling. But the truth is, we get more from the blood drive than anyone will know. On that day our hearts are filled as we see our friends, family, and colleagues come out to support our cause. Not only do we go to bed feeling like we made a difference, we feel all the love of everyone who participated.

We have learned some big lessons and grown as a family in our chosen process of giving back. The biggest lesson we learned is that our blood drive is how we heal, together. All of our sons know that the drive is on AJ’s birthday – we honor what we went through, we celebrate, and we give back. All of our boys play a role in the planning process each year. As the blood drive has evolved over the years, it has become a project-based learning (PBL) experience. (For information on PBL, check out this intro to PBL). As an educator, I love PBL to teach students while engaging them in a real-world problem that they have to grapple with. It didn’t occur to me that our blood drive was providing that for our boys until my good friend and Edjacent designer, Meghan Raftery pointed it out.

I always wanted to be the mom who brings my kids to a community clean-up or collects food to donate. We have done these things and our kids learned from them, but it always felt forced. Sometimes they were not excited to participate. But the blood drive is different. It has more meaning to them. They are invested in the mission. It’s a teaching and learning opportunity for all of us. I have heard my kids explain the blood drive and why we do it with so much passion. I don’t know that they will grow up to host their own blood drives, but I do know that they will be adults who give back to their communities because they experienced it as kids. They were part of the process that made it happen.

We all want to raise kids who understand why and how to give back. We tell them to pay it forward, be a good human, and be kind to others. We even buy them shirts that have these sentiments in bold letters across their chests. So why not give them opportunities to experience this with their family? The process is not complicated and it can morph to meet the needs of your family. It can be a one-time event or something that you participate in continuously or year after year. It just needs to be something that has meaning to your family. Here are some guiding questions to get you and your family started:

What is important to your family? What problems are in your community that matter? Where do these overlap?

This can’t be a force fit. Like I said, I have brought my kids to other community events and we have learned from them. But having a cause that they experienced firsthand and can connect to on a personal level brings the experience to life and makes it much more meaningful. As a family, sit down and talk about what is important to each of you. Share different charities, nonprofits, and causes with your kids and talk about what each does and why. Here is a great resource to help you: Charity Navigator.

What information do you need to know? How can you get involved in the work?

Once you identify a cause, spend some time researching what is already happening in your community. Make sure the kids are involved in this step – they are familiar with the internet and social media so let them do their thing!

What role can your kids play in the mission? How can they help?

Let your kids brainstorm ways that they can help. While many organizations have volunteer programs, you can create a new way to raise money or collect needed items. Don’t be afraid to create your own event. My middle son organized a bike lock giveaway after his bike had been stolen. We advertised on our neighborhood social media platform and he made signs. He handed out bike locks and shared his story.

Debrief! Reflect!

This is really important. If you want this to be a meaningful experience, you must put the time in to talk about what went well, what you would do differently, and how everyone felt about the experience. This can be done in a lot of different ways and does not need to be super formal. We usually talk with each kid individually so that they can share their insight. Our kids all have different perspectives and give us such great feedback when we ask them to share. Make sure you take time to reflect on the experience and do not be afraid to recalibrate. You do not want to force fit a family project like this and have a bad experience.

As parents, we all want to give our kids opportunities that will help them grow into good humans. Our family has learned and grown so much through our annual blood drive. We love the challenge, the feeling of giving back to our community, and working together. I hope our experience helps you and your family find a way to learn together and give back to your community!

Note from Edjacent: We urge our members and readers to donate blood. If you live or work in Southeastern Virginia and are available on Wednesday, August 10, 2022, please sign up at AJ Blood Drive. To find a blood drive near you, go to

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