Canada's largest daily newspaper
A different type of cramming
Student procrastinators are rushing to complete the mandatory 40 hours of community service
The Toronto Star, by Andrea Gordon, Family issues reporter, June 20, 2008
Not long ago, Ruth Pentinga of the Yonge Street Mission got a call from a Toronto high school student eager to volunteer. So eager, that she wanted to contribute 22 hours over two days.
At the YMCA of Greater Toronto, the number of youth volunteers has jumped in the past month.
And the head of another local community agency says at this time of year they always hear from donors looking for volunteer opportunities for their Grade 12 kids.
It's June and procrastinators are cramming to finish the 40 hours of mandatory community service required to graduate from high school. Officially, they have until commencement.
Ontario introduced the program in 1999. Statistics show many kids start logging their volunteer hours early in high school and continue well beyond 40. About three-quarters have them completed by spring of Grade 12, according to the most recent ministry numbers from 2005-06.
But for some, the last-minute dash is as much a part of the graduation ritual as prom and wistful yearbook signings.
Julien Lapointe, who just finished Grade 12 at Marc Garneau Collegiate in Toronto, has seen a lot of that. But he wanted other kids to experience the same rewards he'd found through three years volunteering at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. So he researched, designed and created a website called 40Hours.ca to help them kick-start the process.
The site, launched this spring, explains the curriculum requirements, walks students through the process of filling out applications and tracking hours, and links them to a range of organizations looking for help.
"We're like Lavalife, but for volunteers," he says on his home page. "Let us help you discover your passion!"
Lapointe, 18, says as a Grade 9 student he was confused by the process and had a hard time finding information on the Toronto District School Board website. Once he did, "it really wasn't encouraging and motivating, it made it look like just another assignment. I wanted to spice it up."
He gave a presentation to Toronto guidance teachers in April, and website hits spiked. He plans to maintain it when he heads to University of Western Ontario this fall, and continue adding interesting volunteer postings.
40Hours promotes the principles that many in the non-profit sector say are critical to instilling a sense of civic duty in kids. Those include: finding a cause they feel passionate about; taking on a role that fits their lifestyle; and starting early in high school rather than sandwiching it into the last few months.
That means if a student loves athletics and isn't interested in poverty issues, encourage them to help with community sports, not work in a food bank, says Rick Tobias, president of the Yonge Street Mission, which depends on about 3,400 adult and student volunteers a year to support the homeless, impoverished and others in need.
He stresses kids can use the mandated hours as an opportunity to test out possible career paths or enhance their skills.
"A little bit of healthy self-centredness is a good thing to bring to volunteering, whether it's a 55-year-old businessman or a 17- or 18-year-old student. That's what will keep them doing it."
While food banks, hospitals, public libraries, parks and rec and the YMCA are popular choices, there are lesser-known options. 40Hours links to the Community Association for Riding for the Disabled, which is popular among horse-lovers. EcoMENTORS and the HEYY community phone line train teens to counsel peers.
Linda Stevenson, head of guidance at Riverdale Collegiate in Toronto, says there are so many agencies and event organizers recruiting volunteers through high schools that finding volunteer jobs isn't an issue. It only amounts to 10 hours a year, she says.
By April, only about 40 of 220 Grade 12 students at Riverdale hadn't submitted the volunteer "passport" with verification of their hours, compared to half the class five years ago.
But still, every year she gets a couple of college kids scrambling back in September to finish. In most cases, they've received letters from their post-secondary school indicating they aren't considered grads without the community service.
Julie Toskan-Casale, executive director of the Youth and Philanthropy Initiative, which goes into classrooms to teach students about charities and volunteering, applauds the program because "if you start early with kids, I really believe this stuff sticks with them."
But she says it needs a re-evaluation, including a flashier online presence, original volunteer ideas and Read More ..pport in the classroom. The ministry should start examining trends - where students volunteer, how many exceed the requirement and whether they plan to continue in the future - to tailor the curriculum.
Alex Apostolopoulos, who helped launch Volunteer Now (volunteer now.ca), which helps TDSB students find opportunities to complete their hours, says the program is critical because it gives kids a taste of giving back and makes them feel like valued contributors.
There will always be teens destined to do that no matter what, and others who will never feel it's their calling, he says.
"But there's a big middle group in there that just need a little exposure, and they are the ones where this will really make a difference."
Lapointe is among them. His volunteer job at Sunnybrook involves transporting patients around the hospital in wheelchairs. Sometimes he finds himself chatting to the elderly or soothing someone's worries.
"There were a lot of occasions when I felt very happy about what I was doing. And proud."