South Florida teens give back to their communities with service projects

Gabrielle Walden, a Silver Knight winner and a recent graduate of Miami Beach High, had her CAS project idea for several years, predating high school.
Gabrielle Walden, a Silver Knight winner and a recent graduate of Miami Beach High, had her CAS project idea for several years, predating high school. Provided by Walden family.

There are more than 75 high schools throughout Florida that offer International Baccalaureate diploma programs to its juniors and seniors. IB diplomas, which are designed to provide challenging curriculum to high school upperclassmen through various core requirements, were first offered at South Florida high schools in the mid 1990s.

In addition to its rigorous academics, the diploma has a service requirement—the CAS (creativity, activity, service) project, in which students must devote time to give back to their communities. Without completion of a project, students cannot graduate with IB diplomas, no matter how good their academics are.

“There is definitely more of an emphasis to contribute to the community than the normal service requirements for other students,” says Carlos Rodriguez, IB coordinator at Miami Beach Senior High. “You can’t be in IB without participating in the community. You can pass all your exams, but if you don’t do this requirement you don’t get your IB diploma. There is that added incentive.”

The past few years, South Florida teens have used their CAS projects to make great strides improving the lives of others in their communities.

Take for instance Daphne Toglia, a rising senior at Miami Beach High. She recently started her service project with two friends, teaching music class weekly to underprivileged children at Le Jardin Community Center in Homestead.

Inspired by her love of music, Toglia says that it is her passion to giving back to others, not necessarily the CAS project requirement, that spurred her to begin teaching.

“To be honest, I started this project more for my own satisfaction and not to fulfill the CAS requirement,” Toglia said. “I’ve always liked music, especially because I’ve been playing piano since I was 6 years old. It has always been a stress reliever for me and I thought I should introduce this to people who don’t have the access to it.”

Toglia and her friends, Lucy Walsh and Melanie Larson rotate teaching classes that average about seven to eight pre-K students each.

“Every time we go the teachers are very happy that we are there and the kids get super excited. The kids always want us to come back the next time,” Toglia said.

Other students, like Gabrielle Walden, a Silver Knight winner and a recent graduate of Miami Beach High as well, had her CAS project idea for several years, predating high school.

“In eighth grade before I went to Beach High, I had a big interest in discovering new music and promoting the arts down here,” she said. “I was thinking of a way to create a project that would have a lasting effect on my high school and encompass the creative talents we had in South Florida.”

The result was iTide, a 100% student-run radio podcast, produced and hosted by Walden herself. The first of its kind in the county, the station took a sizable effort just to get approved by the school district, Walden said. “I even had to work with a copyright lawyer.”

The 18-year-old devoted more than 20 hours a week to produce the weekly 30-minute podcast that ran throughout her senior year. Once the website,, was running, she put up posters around town and school with a scannable barcode that took smartphone users directly to the website.

Walden credits her schoolmates, teachers, and IB curriculum offered at Miami Beach for helping her achieve her project.

“IB is very unique in that it allowed me to openly pursue my interests. My teachers allowed us to really get creative in classroom. I was able to do things like work with the sound engineering students, that really ended up benefiting my project. I had this entire spectrum of teachers and administrators, people that were mentors to me, that encouraged me and my peers to express ourselves in this creative way. Being able to incorporate that same approach into my project, in that creative and fun way, was something that my teachers had been about since day one.”

IB recently refined its CAS acronym, which initially stood for community, action, service to community, activity, service. This signifies a change in the organization’s perspective on student service, said Jan Patterson, IB coordinator at Gulliver Preparatory School.

“There used to be a 150-hour requirement per student in order to graduate. ...The program is now emphasizing giving quality service back to the community, not just the nitty-gritty hours,” Patterson said.

That’s what Giovanni Chiarella, a recent grad from North Miami Senior High, focused on improving at his own school, the quality of the service, rather than the service hours. As president of his school’s National Honors Society, he worked with non-IB and IB students alike to expand a schoolwide tutoring system, as well as a teacher assistant program, where students offered their services to teachers after school. He also got many of his club’s members to participate in local charity events.

“We did veteran walks, Thanksgiving Day parades, Martin Luther King events, all limited to North Miami area. We wanted to go beyond and help the greater Miami area, even the Broward area. We got involved in the autism walk and two breast cancer walks. We wanted to bring awareness to those organizations. ... We ended up being one of the most community engaged clubs at school.”

Larry Jurrist, Chiarella’s IB coordinator at North Miami High, believes that the IB diploma curriculum goes beyond requiring service, but that it changes the students outlook of giving back.

“Part of the process of CAS, that other students don’t do is the self evaluation of their service to the community. Students have to hand in a great deal of documentation of their service and a written self evaluation which reflects what that project did for the community, what that project did for them, and what they learned from the experience. The program helps the students develop a certain psychology of involvement. ... It becomes part of their student personality.”