Teach children early about volunteering

The guidance office in any high school will tell you the same thing. In the final months of their final year, some students invariably appear at the door to the guidance office, confusion in their eyes. But it’s not their academics they’re worried about.

High school students in Ontario get four whole years to figure out how to do the 40 hours of community service they are required to complete before they can get a diploma. That’s 10 hours a year. Even so, some students just can’t get it together.

Let’s see: 40 hours. That’s one full week in one of their three summers, or four hours every Saturday for just 10 weeks, or just one hour a week over the course of one year. This is a problem? I suppose, it might seem daunting to the student who knows their deadline is looming and so are exams.

This is one policy that Conservative Premier Mike Harris instituted that I have mixed feelings about. Yes, I think it’s great that all students get a taste for volunteering. But goodness, if they’re forced into it, are they really doing it with the spirit of community that is at the heart of volunteering? Forced volunteerism is an oxymoron  – it isn’t actually volunteerism at all. It’s just unpaid work. So, what are we trying to teach our kids?

Yes, it’s a fine kettle of fish we’re in. But we can certainly try to make the most of the situation.

I know high schools try really hard, but in my humble opinion, it is the elementary schools that have the most success in teaching our children about the spirit of volunteerism. Each school is different, but they all create innumerable ways for students to get involved. They are invited to join the eco-schools club, join school council, be a kindergarten helper, answer the phone at lunchtime, be a crossing guard, shelve books in the library, assist in running the girls’ club – you name it and the kids are all involved as much as the teachers can handle it.

For any of you parents of children who may some day become high school students, here is a hint: get them started early. After they’re officially in Grade 9, any volunteer hours can count towards their 40-hour quota. Students can volunteer formally at a nursing home, day camp, religious institution, or daycare, for example. Though more difficult to set up, an official long-term arrangement actually merits an entry on the resume they will need soon, and may therefore be even more worthwhile. At the other extreme, students can simply start grabbing an hour here and there, for example, by shovelling the driveway of an elderly neighbour. As long as your child gets a piece of paper attesting to the work done, they’re set to go.

One strategy that I see students using is to help out back at their former elementary school. Every school has major events or clubs for which they need extra help. It could be a cross-country meet, a fun fair, or maybe the computer club. I favour this strategy for several reasons. It takes place in the students’ comfort zone, and students may welcome the chance to reconnect with their grade school. It’s safe – no worries about your child working alongside unfamiliar adults. It encourages responsibility for and empathy with the young. And it’s usually close by.

Of course, kids learn by example, and the best example of all is their own family. I’m so in awe of those parents who work full time AND volunteer in various ways at their local school. Kids notice. Kids remember 30 years from now. Kids will catch the spirit.

Editor’s Note: Students can get volunteers hours by delivering Beach Metro News. Doing only a half hour every two weeks will earn more than the needed 40 hours over the course of four years. Contact Sheila at 416-698-1164 ext. 24 or admin@beachmetro.com for more information.

Margaret Hoogeveen is a local writer, editor, and mother of two school-aged daughters. She can be reached at mhoogeveen@sympatico.ca

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