01 March 2006
by Catherine Mulroney
Making Ontario's high school students complete 40 hours of community service before graduation is a classic example of an idea that's great in theory but not necessarily so hot in practice.
That may seem odd coming from someone who's a big believer in the benefits of volunteering, but as a mother watching children rack up hours — as well as being a volunteer who's worked alongside dozens of teens gathering hours — I've seen the good, the bad and the downright ugly of community service, and firmly believe the policy is more about public relations than pedagogy.
There have always been socially conscious teens who've found value in helping out, and high schools have long provided opportunities — service clubs, home room food drives, etc. — to help them.
Since the 1999-2000 school year, however, students must document 40 hours of service to get a high school diploma, making formal something many schools were already doing.
(Ironically, Statistics Canada figures released at about the same time indicated the number of Canadians volunteering took a steep plunge.)
When the policy was introduced, there was much fanfare about how community service would help create better, more responsible young adults.
The bottom line, however, is that the state can legislate action, but not emotions. The term mandatory volunteerism explains the inherent problem. In fact, by institutionalizing something that was once voluntary, there is a risk of turning off future volunteers, teaching them only that helping out is a chore to be crossed off a to-do list rather than a valuable experience for both volunteer and recipient.
While I've encountered numerous enthusiastic, dedicated teen volunteers, I've also worked alongside some for whom every step was drudgery, time put in merely to complete the dreaded paperwork. Frankly, they don't perform much of a service, but do get in the way of other volunteers.
The policy issued by the ministry suggested community involvement would "encourage students to develop awareness and understanding of civic responsibility and of the role they can play and the contributions they can make in supporting and strengthening their communities."
It also generally described where they could volunteer (for example, in businesses and not-for-profit organizations, a somewhat strange combination) as well as where they couldn't (anything involving the handling of securities or the administration of any kind of medical procedure), decisions that leave the rest of us grateful.
Apart from that, each school board was to come up with guidelines and implement and track hours, turning what was once a heart-felt activity into a spreadsheet item hinging on the honour system.
What's resulted is a Wild West situation, with some kids shovelling their elderly neighbour's snow or sorting at the food bank, while others do the filing in an uncle's family business.
Some students become so focused on putting in their time they end up mistakenly seeing social agencies as existing primarily to help them get their hours, instead of seeing volunteer time as a way of learning about life, with the hours racked up an incidental benefit.
Still others are left scrambling in the spring of graduation year, having concentrated on studies, sports and teen life in general.
Some are scrupulously honest about their time; others fudge their statements, because, frankly, many guidance counsellors and staff don't have the time or resources to double-check. Nor should they. Learning about giving back to your community is something that should come from home; if a student offers less than full disclosure on how, what and when, it's a family, not a school, issue, and something for the student's conscience.
Family is another huge factor. The guidelines say any service by students under 18 must be decided on in consultation with a parent.
That doesn't mean, however, that a parent should be making arrangements for a 17-year-old. In my books, community service is about more than showing up; it also includes setting up your schedule.
Any long-term volunteer will tell you the effort comes from the heart. Many of Ontario's teens would always have volunteered, regardless of the rules. With luck, many others will one day grow into volunteering, whether it's coaching a daughter's hockey team or driving for Meals on Wheels. But unless it's a voluntary action, it's hardly worthwhile.