Why forcing kids to volunteer is a great idea

Even when it’s mandatory, volunteering builds community and promotes a healthier society


John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Another school year begins.

And the majority of Canadian high school students will find themselves doing a lot more than lessons and tests to earn their diplomas this year—they’ll also be working in food banks, coaching kids’ soccer and delivering neighbourhood newsletters.

Volunteer work has become a key requirement of the secondary school education process from coast to coast. It’s a trend worth a closer look, a few tweaks and some celebration.

In 1999, Ontario broke new ground in Canada with a requirement that every high school student complete 40 hours of community service outside the classroom before graduating. The move was sold as a way to improve civic engagement and enhance students’ personal development, and it instantly created a huge source of free labour for a variety of charitable and community organizations.

Other provinces and territories have followed suit, although the programs vary widely. British Columbia’s “graduation transitions” program predates the Ontario system, but students are allowed to accumulate their 30 hours in either paid employment or unpaid community service. Newfoundland, Northwest Territories and Nunavut have all created exclusively volunteer requirements. New Brunswick premier David Alward promised an Ontario-style volunteer program during his last election. Other provinces have left the decision up to local school boards.

Prince Edward Island provides a novel alternative by offering high school students $5 per hour for up to 100 hours of volunteer work as a bursary that can be applied against university or college tuition.

While some U.S. student groups have decried high school volunteer obligations as “slavery,” the idea has created very little controversy in Canada. Asking students to help their community has obvious appeal for both voters and parents. And social science research shows a clear link between volunteerism and a variety of positive outcomes: young volunteers have a greater tendency to vote, do better in school and display less anti-social or negative behaviour, such as teen pregnancy or getting in trouble with the law.

Curiously enough, however, the volunteer industry isn’t entirely sold on the concept.

“The mandated nature means this is not really volunteering,” says Ruth MacKenzie, president and CEO of Volunteer Canada. She lumps high school hours in with community service orders and other court-mandated sentencing requirements. The fear among those in the charity business is that forcing kids to volunteer in high school might turn them off the concept for the rest of their lives.

However, research at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., reveals no negative impacts from forcing students to provide a week of free work for worthy causes. “Making it mandatory doesn’t undermine any of the positive aspects of the program,” says politics professor Steven Brown. “It doesn’t poison the well.”

And regardless of any direct impact on charities or other groups, there’s more to the community service concept than creating an army of future volunteers. We shouldn’t forget the salutary effect of simply requiring teenagers to think for a moment about their interests and how they might be put to use for the betterment of others. For many kids, accumulating volunteer hours marks their first real experience with the world outside home, school and sports, making it a chance to learn some practical skills as well. Finally, the Ontario model accomplishes all this without consuming precious classroom time or resources.

If there’s a valid criticism, Brown observes, it’s that many students lack the parental support or imagination to find interesting or rewarding volunteer positions. One Ontario survey found that half the students from lower-income families either faked or exaggerated their volunteer requirements. And some kids no doubt consider it just another high school hassle, like Shakespeare or physics. Perhaps the volunteer industry itself should put more effort into making choices easier and more intuitive for students if it’s worried about wooing future volunteers.

Public education is often the source of Canada’s most heated policy debates—from teachers’ salaries to religious funding to sex ed. So we ought to take time to celebrate the quiet successes of the education system as well, such as the fact many provinces have found a way to inculcate a greater sense of community among students while promoting skills development and a healthier society. Mandatory volunteering may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s also a great idea.

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Why forcing kids to volunteer is a great idea

  1. When I was in secondary school (high school in Quebec), I attended the International Education Program, and volunteering was mandatory. Far from pushing me away from it, that experience got me into it, so that when I entered Cégep, one of my first reflexes was to look for somewhere to help. In university, that approach paid off handsomely in more than a way, be it in terms of skills I’ve gained or wonderful and talented people I’ve met. Instilling a culture of volunteering from an early age clearly is the right way to go.

  2. Merci Katimavik. Thank you Katimavik.

  3. The main reason that those who belong to organized religion generally contributes more time and money to charities is not necessarily because secularists don’t want to contribute. Instead it is because going to a church or other religious institution carries with it an expectation that you contribute to its charitable aims and you will be continuously approached (or hassled if you prefer) to do so. I have often heard at church functions that a person was “voluntold” to do something. Secularists on the other hand, don’t have that weekly obligation, and thus their opportunities to be “voluntold” to do something are less.

    I can see schools also having the same role, being active promoters of charity and community by approaching students or making volunteering mandatory. The only trouble of course is which charities the school should patronize with these students. The best solution would be to just allow parents to choose the charity their kids contribute to, and have the charity fill out a form letter saying the kid has contributed the necessary number of hours for the credit.

  4. While valid points, this article would suggest that students don’t have any interests or care about their community. I think it’s important to keep in mind that many students have causes they are passionate about or interested in learning more about. There is growing evidence to suggests that youth are very socially consious and active.

  5. The idea of instilling the concept of civic engagement into students is a great one. However, the government has a habit of mandating “volunteering” (oxymoron) and then providing no support. The government dumped the mandate into the laps of schools who don’t have the time to take this on, and so the mandate was passed to students (parents).

    The idea will only work if students understand how to find meaningful opportunities. This takes coordination – by a person experienced in matching volunteers to opportunities. In my experience (I have been matching volunteers for over 10 years), only a handful of students know how to look for a volunteer opportunity. The rest do not. And, similar to workfare, what actually came out of this mandate is that the charities becoming inundated with phone calls from frantic parents trying to find anything that will enable their kids to graduate. This does not instill civic responsibility at all.
    In addition, there is a general lack of understanding about the research that needs to be undertaken to find opportunities. I’ve had calls asking whether I can place a student “next week to do his 40 hours”. Sorry, that is not going to fly with a lot of Coordinators for the following reasons:
    1. Shows a lack of responsibility – the student has waited until the zero hour instead of starting to look into this at the beginning of high school2. Screening (interviews, orientation/training, police checks, reference checks, health checks) usually takes time and it isn’t often that people can be placed “next week”3. Many charities’ hours conflict with school hours4. Many opportunities have a minimum age requirement of 14-16 years or higher
    Anyone who wishes to volunteer needs to take the time to figure out what they are interested in doing, look for specific agencies that offer these opportunities, and find out the process to become a volunteer (and be prepared to wait for placement).
    If the government was serious about making this concept work, it would have provided funding to enable Coordinators of Volunteers (not guidance counsellors) into the secondary schools to help students find opportunities that would mean something to them. I would love nothing more than to work with students in this capacity and educate them about the realities of volunteering. But alas, as far as I can discern, (especially in this environment of funding cutbacks) this type of funding does not exist.

    • Easy answer: the student shouldn’t graduate. You express the same frustration as teachers–students don’t do the work. It is not hard to find a volunteering opportunity. You just need to care and make it a priority–much like school in general. If a student isn’t taking responsibility and waiting until the last minute, that it not the fault of the government, but the student.

  6. Volunteering for students has great benefits for all involved but there does need to be more education about making right volunteer choices. As a professional in the field for many years, one of the barriers to making the right volunteer connection is that the potential volunteer, especially the student does not know how to go about finding the right position and asking the right questions. So where I agree that community hours is a great concept, it should come with an educational component to set the foundation for volunteering from experienced adminstrators of volunteers who can guidle students to the right volunteer opportunity which hopefully, will start the life long volunteering path for the student.

  7. I think this comment board needs the input of someone from one of the students being force to do community contributions, rather than adults who have no real insight as to what happens. As a grade twelve student, I feel I have that insight. Put plain and simple, community service is a ridiculous thing to force students to do. We have enough to worry about without this burden hanging over us as it is. We need to try and keep our averages up so we can get into a good school, we need to work a part time job to save up to go to said school, we also have exams to study for and we’re also expected to participate in extra curricular activities at school. That’s a lot to demand from a bunch of teenagers. I think we can get rid of this burden that hangs over us that has no educational value at all. School is where you go to learn so you can get a good job, not where you’re forced to commit to slave labor. Thanks, bye.

    • “School is where you go to learn so you can get a good job”
      If this is what you think school is all about, it’s no wonder that you are frustrated about being told to involve yourself in your community. Education is about learning how to live in society. Jobs are part of this, but there is so much more. I hope you learn to expand your ideas and definitions at the “good school” you are working so hard to get into.

  8. No, community service hours for highschoolers is a sham. And it’s stupid.
    Kids don’t go to school to give free labour to local businesses, they go to school to learn. And they shouldn’t be forced to take time out of their lives after school to do things. Plenty high schoolers have jobs, some live alone, or care for somebody, many just don’t have to time to do it. Yet if they don’t, they can’t get an education. Is this fair?

    Giving kids help to volunteer locally is great, but forcing it upon them is unfair.

    • Exactly.

  9. Mandatory volunteer work is the biggest joke I’ve ever heard of. What gives people the right to deny students their education because of something so pity as volunteer hours? This has completely stigmatized any volunteering I may do in the future, if any. Seeing as how I’ve spent the past 6 months simply trying to Find a placement that will allow me to volunteer, and still have not even received as much as a call back. Truthfully, its not even volunteer work. It is court mandated community service. Therefore, in my eyes; students are being exploited and I see this as being treated as a slave. If I wanted to volunteer in my community, I would. Don’t put a gun to our heads and force it upon us. Quite frankly, this has ruined the whole “volunteering” experience for me, probably for the rest of my life.

    • Sigh. I’ve taught for 10 years and I know this type of student. Self-righteous, self-centred, unable to understand that his or her attitude might be an issue. Finding a placement is a little hard when you start with the attitude that this is “slave” labour. Google slavery, please. Until then, realize that tiny bit of volunteer work you are being asked to do will help when it’s on your resume. It’ll help to hide the attitude problem.

  10. I did my 40 hours in high school (not that long ago), and the actual volunteer work wasn’t so bad. But I got lucky, I got to volunteer at a local cancer support group my father is a treasurer of, so I was able to work within my comfort zone, and my strengths were addressed. I’m incredibly shy with people, but at where I volunteered, I was given jobs like organization, typing up information, making flyers, ect. But a lot of my friends, who had their own strengths and weaknesses, had no choices and a lot of them absolutely detested the experience.

    Maybe this was just my high school, but I think there needs to be more help for students to find a volunteer position that will suit them, and have the different community programs come to the schools and say something along the lines of “we need a volunteer who can answer phones,” and let students apply, or something like that.

  11. i think it a bad idea as a single parent if you force kids to do things they dont want to do cause them to be sneaky …

  12. It all depends on demographics, living in a rural area I found it very hard to find volunteering opportunities. In cases like mine it is not whether a person did not attempt to find opportunities as it became a competition against upwards of 300 students fighting for the same two or three positions. Once I finally found a organization in which I obtained my hours from I decided that it would be appropriate to request a reference letter from them for scholarships as seeing that I spent a summer at their establishment completing the requirement, only to be denied. Due to this requirement it is expected of me to obtain a letter of reference, although it is impossible because the only place I could get hours from refused to do so. This did not instill civic responsibility in me as it instilled frustration as I struggled to find originations in which fit in the governments very contradictory guidelines.

  13. Right now my daughter is working part-time to hopefully safe up enough money to go to university if she is four or five hundred dollars short because she lost 40 paid hours to work as a volunteer will someone volunteer the money to help pay for her school or will she have to drop out

  14. This is absolutely ridiculous. You can’t force “civic duty.” As a volunteer in a nursing home, I often see high school and undergrad students coming in to contribute their time. But their motivation to do it is only geared towards “getting in” to a good college or graduate program. Thus, their work is often haphazardly done and many look like they genuinely dislike being there. They feign smiles to the volunteering coordinators of the nursing home so that they can get good references, but when the coordinators aren’t looking, it’s a different story. They are all obsessed with “getting enough hours.” This is really just a way to get free labor from children.

  15. There is a word for this ‘mandatory volunteerism’ nonsense…extortion!
    Yes it is extortion, plain and simple.
    For all those adults who trumpet how great this ‘compulsory volunteer’ system is how would you like to have it forced down your throats…pass a law forcing EVERY ADULT to volunteer or we will garnish a part of your wages.
    Sounds ridiculous?
    Of course it is but not any less than forcing students to do it under threat of punishment.
    It’s the punitive aspect of this ‘volunteering’ program I find particularly obnoxious.
    Why not encourage volunteering through positive reward such as an extra academic credit rather than this volunteer or else rubbish.
    And certainly aren’t at least some students deserve some exemption from this?
    The ones who are working, for example?
    40 hours doesn’t sound like much but if a kid is holding down a job he/she might have to work less hours to fulfill these requirements and I can’t see the fairness in that.
    Compulsory community service (let’s drop the volunteer BS) should only be imposed on those who show no commitment to their schoolwork and/or are not gainfully employed.
    Why should kids who pull down excellent grades and find time to work be lumped into the same category as ‘slackers’?
    Makes no sense and is totally unfair.

  16. My child volunteered at an art camp and put in 30 hours helping out. She didn’t get paid. The school refused her hours because it wasn’t a non profit organization. However she took no salary or position away from anyone. I know kids who play hockey, dance and skate etc. It’s really easy for them to get hours because basically it’s offered to them and they get to hang out in a place they already want to be. Technically these are non profit however we know as parents the high costs to put your kids into these programs. I can’t afford any. These kids do not go out of their comfort zone or have to search for opportunities so I question what they really get out of this. They brag about all the hours they rack up and get praise for it. Volunteering should be just that. Taking time to help out regardless of organization should count. I really have to question what it is we are teaching our kids when we refuse the hours that were given freely and that an effort had to be made to find.

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