Kids with a cause
Some schools in Canada force students to volunteer. Even then, it turns out to be good for them.
CATHY GULLI | Nov 21, 2005
Every Monday evening, Dushyandi Rajendran trades in her backpack and textbooks for another set of learning tools -- coloured papers and a yellow smock. Once she's got her homework and supper out of the way, the Grade 12 student heads out to an unlikely night class essential for her to graduate next spring: Japanese paper-folding.
Seventeen-year-old Rajendran, who attends Marc Garneau Collegiate in Toronto, is putting in community service hours at Princess Margaret Hospital Lodge, an off-site facility for cancer patients. There, she helps teach a weekly origami class through the Canadian Cancer Society. But Rajendran insists she's the one benefiting most from these sessions. "Hearing people's stories and talking with them, I've learned so much about life experiences, and about what people have to live with," she says. "They have so much to offer, and it's such a great thing to see."
Forty hours of community service is compulsory for all Ontario high school students before graduation. But across the country, only five areas do the same -- British Columbia and the Yukon(both 30 hours), and the Northwest Territories and Nunavut(25 hours). Newfoundland has introduced a pilot project among Grade 10 students mandating that they complete 30 hours of community service in order to graduate. This year, 45 of 130 high schools are participating, and in 2006 the requirement will be province-wide.
A recent study by the Catholic University of America in Washington, however, shows that forcing students to volunteer is in their best interests, and leads to more civic-minded, socially active adults. "If it's a good program," says James Youniss, who studied Boston high school students between 2000 and 2002, "and they're getting something meaningful out of it, then it's irrelevant if students were forced to do it."
And students almost always have a meaningful experience, says Bill Conconi, executive director of the Canadian Association of Student Activity Advisors, which promotes high school leadership programs. "Most kids have enjoyed the experience because even though it's compulsory, where they do it and how they do it is voluntary. There are all sorts of places to get experience." Whether students choose to entertain at a seniors' residence, serve as lifeguards at the local pool, or job-shadow a veterinarian, the benefits are the same. "It's a way of providing links to the larger community," says Helen Raham, research director for the Ottawa-based Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education. "It should be a win-win, whereby the community benefits, and the student gains a lot of insight, empathy and skills."
In most cases, students also gain work experience. "Even from Day 1 it's not much different than if they were applying for a paid job," says Leslie Sheriff, volunteer resources coordinator at Princess Margaret lodge, adding that the students must comport themselves as if they were paid workers.
So with this many benefits to be gained from mandatory volunteerism, why aren't other jurisdictions introducing it? Forced volunteerism, some provinces say, requires resources most schools lack, and is contrary to the spirit of community service. And, notes Conconi, schools and volunteer organizations often worry about liability. "There is a certain concern that you're accepting some responsibilities that you may not want to have. It may be difficult to get good placements, and to make sure that [students] are put in a safe environment." Raham notes that an unwilling volunteer can be more hindrance than help to an organization. "I think the challenge is to find an area where the student is interested in volunteering. And that takes counselling, staff facilities to make those liaisons, and partnerships. Schools say they haven't got the resources."
With little Canadian cost-benefit research about mandatory community service, says Raham, few education ministries feel compelled to take on the added work. "On the face of it, this seems like a useful direction to go. But research would be helpful to support the general belief." For Rajendran, though, there's no question about the value of compulsory volunteerism. "If it wasn't required I don't know if I would be doing this," she says. "I don't think a lot of people would be."
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