One hundred hours of community service. Sounds a bit like a court-ordered sentence, but that’s exactly what New Brunswick might require all high school students to perform in order to graduate. Though the hours involved might be more extensive, the concept is not new to students in some other provinces and territories, such as Ontario, British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador and the Northwest Territories, where mandated volunteer hours range from 25 to 40.
“Nothing makes you feel better than helping someone else,” says Linda Stevenson, guidance and volunteering head at Riverdale Collegiate Institute in Toronto. “The kids come away feeling better about themselves and have a sense of what it means to be a good citizen.” Community involvement also helps students connect classroom learning with the skill sets they will need in the adult workplace as well as boosts self-confidence, facilitates networking and possibly even leads to paying jobs and scholarships, says Stevenson.
Cecilia Porter, who lives in a small community north of Victoria, has volunteered at an inner-city soup kitchen since she was in Grade 11. “Cecilia had actually already done her 30 hours helping younger kids at a riding academy, but she was very interested in the issue of local and global poverty,” says her mom, Pam. So every Wednesday afternoon the then 15-year-old travelled 45 minutes downtown to plate food and wash dishes. “She really got hooked on it.”
For Cecilia, now 21, the experience taught her two big lessons. “I learned to humanize a greater variety of people. These were people with needs and emotions.” She also learned not to take things personally when someone snapped at her. “If someone got angry at me for forgetting their gravy, it probably had nothing to do with me. They likely had a thousand things go wrong that day.”
On the opposite coast, in Quispamsis, N.B., recent high school grad Marine Chopin, 18, who already volunteers extensively at her church, advises teens to combine opportunities in both familiar and unfamiliar areas to achieve their community service hours. “Maybe you like to ref sports games, but it’s also good to try something outside of your comfort zone, something which might help you grow as a person,” she says.
Each year, Riverdale’s Stevenson convenes a Grade 9 assembly to urge the teens to start collecting their hours as soon as they can. “If they wait until Grade 11 or 12, the school workload is heavier and many have part-time jobs, which makes volunteering harder to fit in.” This past June only two of the school’s 192 Grade 12 students hoping to graduate had not completed or handed in proof of verification of their community service hours. Hence, by the Ministry of Education decree, they could not graduate. However, says Stevenson, the school checks carefully to see if perhaps the hours were fulfilled but not submitted or if submitted, not entered into the student’s records. Otherwise, the guidance office will try to help find somewhere for the student to complete the hours over the summer.
Teens wondering what type of service to do should ask a teacher or coach. Places of worship, museums, libraries, hospitals and nursing homes are good places to try. There are also websites such as 40hours.ca and charityvillage.com that list volunteer opportunities by location. Sometimes even helping an elderly neighbour with shopping or snow shovelling will qualify. “But not babysitting your little sister,” says Stevenson with a laugh.
Like Cecilia, many teens end up doing far more hours than required. “Some teens finish their hours and just keep on going,” says Ruth Pentinga, director of volunteer resources for the Yonge Street Mission in Toronto, who organizes the 45″“50 students who help out each year. “The teens we have are full of energy and ideas, and they have a lot of fun doing their volunteer work. They have smiles on their faces, and they thank us for giving them the opportunity to help. We thank them too, of course. It really is a win-win situation.”