Our Story


 How do you inspire students to make a difference?

After years of teaching and running schools in the DC area, Hugh Riddleberger was left wondering: how could schools really, meaningfully introduce students to the world’s most pressing social issues – and mobilize them to do something? In 2003 Hugh decided to try something new. With initial support from Share Our Strength and the Case Foundation, he invited 14 students and 11 teachers representing 6 diverse schools from across the region to join a two-week service learning trip to Ethiopia in the summer of 2004. The students and teachers returned transformed. Hugh realized he was on to something.


The idea grew into the Center for International Education, at the time housed at the Washington International School. We added trips to Zambia, Paraguay, and China and helped students and teachers bring these countries home to their schools and families.

By 2006 we realized that these summers abroad were just the beginning. We introduced our year-long Fellows program to offer a hands-on, practical introduction to social entrepreneurship. Our students explored critical business skills such as strategic planning, financial literacy, and cross-cultural communication – and applied these skills to pressing global issues like climate change, poverty, and health. LearnServe Fellows develop these skills as they design and launch their own innovative social ventures. In Spring 2007, the first 20 Fellows formally pitched their venture ideas.

A new organization is born.

In 2008 we outgrew our home at WIS and became an independent non-profit organization:

Since 2008 we’ve doubled the size of our Fellows Program and launched a new LearnServe Abroad destination: Jamaica. In 2010, Hugh retired, turning leadership of LearnServe over to Directors Sabine Keinath and Scott Rechler, and Board Chair Catherine Tinsley.

In 2013 we celebrated our 10th anniversary which gave us an opportunity to reconnect with our alumni and find out more about how our programs impacted their lives and their schools.  Out of that process came blog posts and videos where teachers and former students discussed the path their lives have taken as a result of their LearnServe experiences.  We also undertook our first long-term impact evaluation, conducted by ICF International.

Reviewing the results of our long-term impact evaluation, and in conversation with partner schools, we realized that this is just the start.  How can we ensure students engaged with social innovation receive the support they need throughout implementation and growth? How can we work more deeply with schools, offering curriculum materials and support to help teachers bring social entrepreneurship into the school day?

Based on feedback requesting more support for Fellows following the Panels and Venture Fair, we piloted the LearnServe Incubator in the 2014-15 academic year.  This year-long program for LearnServe Fellows alumni maximizes the impact of the most promising social ventures and deepens Fellows’ understanding of entrepreneurship.  Following the successful pilot phase, we grew the program in fall of 2015.

In 2014 we also launched our newest program, Seeding Social Innovation.  We trained teachers, introduced them to social entrepreneurship, shared student project planning tools, and offered ongoing support as they integrated social innovation into their classrooms.  We piloted the approach at four schools, reaching 150 students who designed more than 50 social ventures.  In 2015-16 we will expand our high school pilot program and introduce a middle school course.

We continue to bring together students from across DC metropolitan area – students who do not usually have such an opportunity to meet each other and work together. United by a common drive to make the world a better place, they represent a diverse and growing network of more than 30 public, charter, and independent schools in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Through our Fellows Program, Incubator, and LearnServe Abroad programs in Zambia, Paraguay, and Jamaica we directly serve over 100 students each year – and through them and their schools reach hundreds more.

But this is just the start.

We hope that soon every student will graduate high school with the passion to make a difference, and the tools to make their dreams a reality. We hope you’ll join us!