High school volunteering: As some struggle to secure hours, others raise bar

If Zayn Alazawi doesn't complete 40 hours of volunteer work, he won't graduate from his Hamilton high school. He's one of many teens across Canada who must accumulate a certain number of community service hours to receive a diploma, and it can be a headache.

It's not clear if compulsory community service will turn teens into life-long volunteers

Certain provinces and territories, as well as some individual districts, schools and programs, require students to complete a certain number of volunteer hours before graduation. (wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

If  Zayn Alazawi doesn't complete 40 hours of volunteer work, he won't graduate from his Hamilton, Ont., high school. So the 15-year-old spent some of his school-free days this past summer listening to younger kids read at his local library.

He's one of many teens across Canada who must accumulate a certain amount of community service before graduation in order to receive a diploma. 

The provinces and territories that mandate volunteering in high school generally require students to complete between 25 and 40 hours of community service. Students enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program must complete more, though, and those in certain districts, boards or schools may have different requirements. (See the bottom of this story to see where community service is mandatory.)

It seems students fall across different parts of the spectrum of eagerness when it comes to mandatory volunteering. Some don't think twice about it until it's almost too late, and others start as early as they can and compete to see how many hours they can accumulate over four years.

Volunteer organizations have had to adapt their programs to embrace this army of teens seeking short-term assignments. And, while the experience may benefit kids, there's little conclusive research that it makes them more likely to remain charitable with their time as they become adults.

999+ hours for some keen students

Last academic year, Justin Wiens was awarded the prestigious Duke of Edinburgh's Award after he graduated from a Toronto high school. It required he amass hundreds of volunteer hours.

Zayn Alazawi, 15, started volunteering at his local library's reading buddies program this summer to work toward his mandatory community service hours. (Zayn Alazawi)
That's not unusual for students who start clocking hours as early as Grade 9, says Carmela Giardini, who co-ordinated the mandatory volunteer program for the Toronto Catholic District School Board until her retirement this year. Those kids tend to do "well beyond" the mandated 40.

The board now allows students to start accumulating volunteer work during the summer before Grade 9, and recently tweaked its computerized recording program to register more than three digits to accommodate students who surpass 999 hours, Giardini says.

This past academic year, 66 students graduated with more than 999 hours clocked, John W. Yan, the board's senior co-ordinator of communications, told CBC News. The student with the most hours accumulated 1,204 over four years.

When Volunteer Canada's president and CEO, Paula Speevak, conducted an informal survey of school boards several years ago, she found that "well over half" of students surpassed the minimum requirement.

Alazawi wants to graduate with 80 to 100 hours on his student record — "maybe even more."

The extra time, he reasons, will prevent any future educational or career doors from closing.

Alazawi may enter the International Baccalaureate program, which requires more than double the standard 40 hours Ontario asks for, or apply to a competitive post-graduate program that could consider his extracurricular activities in addition to his grades. When the time comes for Alazawi to fill out scholarship applications, those extra volunteer hours could also help set him apart from kids who completed the bare minimum.

Alazawi's friends share his mindset. They started Grade 10 in September and, for the most part, he says they've "either started working on their volunteer hours, finished them or are going for more."

'I need to graduate'

While some students almost seem to consider the requirement a competition, others struggle to secure enough hours.

At the end of the last school year, about 5,500 Grade 11 students in the TCDSB had not yet completed their 40-hour requirement, Yan said.

Giardini homes in on three main reasons why. She says students may:

  • Not know where to find a placement.
  • Have to work and not have the free time.
  • Believe they shouldn't be forced to volunteer.

It's not possible that students are simply unaware of this demand, she says. Since the Ontario government mandated altruism for high-schoolers in 1999, school administrators have worked hard to ensure students and their parents are in the know.

However, she's unaware of the board ever withholding a diploma solely due to missing volunteer work.

Short-term positions needed

Even so, a couple times each summer the phone at the Hamilton Public Library rings with a panicked teen on the other end, says Laura Lukasik, the library's manager of partnerships and outreach.

"I need to get my 40 hours 'cause I need to graduate," the student tells her, Lukasik says.

The library does its best to help.

It's one of several organizations across Canada that advertises short-term placements to help high school students earn their hours.

They can serve as reading buddies in the summer — like Alazawi, more than 300 did so over the summer months — and as homework helpers during the academic year.

It promotes the misconception that youth would not volunteer on their own.- Paula Speevak , Volunteer Canada president and CEO

Students receive some training and then meet at a local branch once a week to assist some younger kids with their reading or homework, Lukasik says. Sometimes those panicked soon-to-be graduates must do the reading buddies program at several branches to log all their hours.

Like the library, many organizations have had to look at what short-term roles they can create to make room for these student volunteers, says Volunteer Canada's Speevak.

While many want to encourage this generation and provide them with a fulfilling experience, Speevak says "it can be challenging" when they lack the capacity to provide support to so many newbies who may not stick around once they log their mandated hours.

In an ideal world, this taste of giving back would turn teens into life-long volunteers. But there's little conclusive evidence that's the case, Speevak says.

"What we don't know is whether or not somebody who participates in a mandatory program is more or less likely to volunteer later in life than those who have come to it voluntarily," she says.

What we do know is that young people do volunteer, even after high school. More than half of people between ages 15 and 24 donated their time in 2010, according to Statistics Canada.

That's the danger in focusing on mandatory volunteering, Speevak says.

"It promotes the misconception that youth would not volunteer on their own."

Where do students need volunteer hours to graduate?

  • Ontario mandates 40 hours; B.C. requires 30, but paid work experience counts; Newfoundland and Labrador asks for 30; and the Northwest Territories requires 25.
  • A mandatory Grade 11 course in Nunavut includes a community practicum. Yukon follows the B.C. program of studies.
  • P.E.I. offers students in the latter half of secondary school a bursary totalling $5 per hour for completing between 30 and 100 hours of volunteer work.
  • Manitoba and Nova Scotia offer elective courses where students can earn a credit for community service.
  • In 2010, New Brunswick Progressive Conservative Leader David Alward promised to institute mandatory volunteer hours as a graduation requirement, but the province now only offers an elective physical education course that requires 30 community service hours.
  • In 2012, Quebec premier Jean Charest announced the province would add 10 hours of mandatory community work to high school graduation requirements.
  • Students enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program, and some students outside these provinces and territories, may also have some type of volunteering requirement, depending on their school or school board's policy.


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