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Volunteering Trends Including Required Volunteer Experience for Ontario High School Students

Summary:
Mandatory volunteer service may be the latest trend. In Canada there are fewer tax dollars and fewer workers employed to perform services in the cultural, health and education sectors. The trend is to rely more heavily upon volunteers; however, fewer and fewer volunteers are coming forth, so mandating community service has become an option. Volunteering produces wide range benefits. It is widely believed that introducing young people to community involvement will set a life-long pattern of community service and interest in civic affairs. This theory is not well tested nor do we know much about the affect of mandating service upon individuals and communities. Key words volunteer, mandatory community service, assessment, civic engagement, social capital

Trends in Volunteering: According to an article published by Volunteer Canada citing research done by McCauley and Ellis, the authors believe that in the future almost every governmental benefit program may require some commitment by the recipient to a volunteer action. The authors found that 83% of all public high schools in the U.S. already have some sort of community service program. (There are no comparable statistics for Canada.) (Volunteering.ca/volunteer/pdf/MCSDP_ENG.pdf) Statistics Canada reported that 8% of Canadian volunteers are required to do so by their employer, school or some community service order, such as a court order for convicted offenders. Government funding for social, health and cultural services has been decreasing significantly during the last few years, and in order to prevent cut-backs on services, organizations are becoming more dependent upon volunteers to perform services or to raise funds. "Caring Canadians, Involved Canadians: Highlight for the Canadian Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participation." August, 2001. (www.statcan.gc.ca) If there is any doubt about this trend, it has been confirmed by the Advisory Board on the Voluntary Sector, an Ontario, Canada government program, which stated in their 1996 document "Sustaining a Civic Society in Ontario" that obligation was shifting from government responsibility for total cultural, health and educational services toward more dependence upon volunteers. (vsarchive.plug.ca/library/BN-CC7|W.pdf)
A healthy and economically strong community relies on volunteers; yet volunteering itself seems to be declining. Only a small segment of the Canadian population volunteer. (Kevin Selbee and Paul Reed, 2001. www.carleton.ca/casr/publications.html) Statistics Canada indicated that 77% of all formal volunteer hours (through organizations) were being performed by 11% of the Canadian adult population. ("Caring Canadians, Involved Canadians: Highlights from the Canadian Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participation," 2004. www.statcan.gc.ca) The future pool of volunteer workers cannot be assured. This trend has prompted more reliance upon mandatory volunteer service commitments.

Definitions: No one has completely agreed upon the definition of "volunteering," "volunteer" or "volunteerism," however there is consensus that "the work must be unpaid, relatively un-coerced and primarily for the benefit of others." The question arises as to whether mandatory community service is really volunteering. The mandatory formula means that there will be some compulsion, and there may be some sort of denial or punishment if the work is not performed as stipulated. The longest-standing mandatory community service programs were those initiated by the governments: 1) court-ordered community service through the justice system; 2) minimum community service requirement in the educational system; 3) community service requirements to receive welfare benefits, transfer payments and so on. Little is known about the potential of mandatory community service to influence volunteer commitment. What will be the attitudes toward mandated and non-mandated volunteers, recipients of the services and the community in general when mandating becomes common practice? This new approach, providing mandatory services, may change how citizens associate with each other in a community. Those issues need to be studied. (Linda L. Graff. New Musing: "Renceptualizing The Value Of Volunteer Work." www.lindagraff.ca)

What is the value of volunteering? Linda Graff, a Canadian volunteer specialists, wrote that this question is seldom asked and when it is posed, the value is often expressed in terms of wage-cost benefits. If you add up the hours a volunteer spends in coaching a children's sports team and the cost of those hours a professional coach would charge, that figure is used to express the value, but that cost is only part of the equation. The children benefit emotionally, socially and physically from this community support; they find comfort in knowing that others are interested in their wellbeing; they learn to relate to adults who have varying management styles; and the coach reaps the reward of seeing that his efforts enrich the lives of young children. Graff gives another example: when a volunteer spends forty hours at the bedside of a dying child, the benefit cannot be measured in monetary terms. The volunteer has enhanced the feeling of comfort and being-cared-for in the child; has given solace to the family; relief to the busy hospital staff who don`t have the time to attend to this need; is a public relations boost to the hospital viewed as insuring compassion; introduced a caring spirit and civility into this devastating situation, and probably reaped personal satisfaction from knowing that the act made a difference. Future studies will attempt to measure "civic engagement" and "social capital," terms that were coined to address issues such as: the value of the way volunteering generates a more civil society, the benefits of the energy and excitement volunteers bring to the group; the new skills the volunteer learns, which are transferable to a job situation; the mental and physical health benefits to the volunteer of staying active and involved with others; the benefits of those who clean up the environment or supply meals to the elderly; and the value to the image of a company that has an attractive volunteer program. The benefits of volunteering flow in many directions. Cost saving in financial terms should not be the primary concern. Graff wrote that the question should be: What difference could training volunteers and establishing volunteer positions actually accomplish?

Accountability: Graff stressed that organizations should make sure that the volunteer position is relevant, can function efficiently, is safe and satisfying, and that materials needed by the volunteer and space required for the work are affordable. The volunteer position does not exist to give the volunteer something to do; it must meet a need of the organization. There must be close scrutiny concerning what the volunteer is doing in order to demonstrate that the volunteer position is addressing the identified need. For example, every week when Toronto high school students volunteer at a branch of the Toronto Public Library to help elementary school children learn to read, each volunteer is required to record what they did, what materials they used and to evaluate the session. A paid staff member reads the reports and writes suggestions to the volunteer.

Evaluation of student volunteering in the United States: Mike Plenty and Michael Regnier report that: 1) In the U.S. after high school, young adults are less active as community service volunteers than they had been in high school - a 25% decline in activity. 2) Individual volunteering patterns varied widely and only 12% of the students volunteered consistently. 3) Consistent volunteering was highest among the females. 4) Females were more likely to volunteer during high school, but two years after graduating, there was no difference between males and females; however eight years out male volunteering had declined further by 27%. 5) Students from high socio-economic backgrounds were more likely to volunteer in high school (60%) compared with those from low (28%) and middle (41%) backgrounds, and eight years later they were still more likely to volunteer. 6) No difference was observed in volunteering eight years after graduation between those who were mandated to volunteer and those who performed no volunteering during high school. Persons who were strongly urged to volunteer or did it strictly for their own reasons were more likely to be volunteering eight years after graduation. This report claims that volunteering enables students to take responsibility, learn to appreciate conditions other people face, and appreciate the value of community participation. (National Center for Education Statistics. U.S. Department of Education. NCES 2004-365 Reference from U.S. Department of Education: www.nces.ed.gov/ssbr/pages/volunteer.asp)

Mandatory High School Community Service in Ontario: In 1999, the province of Ontario, Canada began to require that students spend forty hours of community service during their four years of secondary education in order to graduate. (www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/curricul/secondary/oss/oss.pdf) This is not a credit requirement but is a length of service requirement. The primary objective, like other programs in Canada and around the world, was to enhance civic engagement ? "to encourage the students to develop an understanding of the various roles they can play in serving their community and to help them develop a greater sense of belonging within the community."

I went to Henry Street High School in Whitby, Ontario, a middle-class community, thirty minutes drive east of Toronto to find out how the requirement is met. Elizabeth Faiazza, Head of Guidance and Co-operative Education, explained the regimen. At the beginning of the ninth grade the school principal or the designate, in this case Faiazza, holds a meeting with the class and provides information for the staff, parents, students and community sponsors. She distributes the forms students will need to track and provide proof that the requirement has been met. Students receive a list of acceptable volunteer activities in the community and a list of conditions, which make some projects unacceptable, such as assignments which are dangerous or unlawful, would replace a paid worker, take place during the school day, require the knowledge of a tradesperson, involve valuables or banking or involve ordinary daily home chores. With permission from their parents, unless they are age eighteen or older, students choose an activity or several activities. Parents are responsible for monitoring completion of hours and the safety of their children. All students and community sponsors are covered by insurance to the maximum of forty hours. Community sponsors should have liability insurance and be aware that students do not have accident insurance unless the student has made private arrangements. The form each student uses to report his community involvement includes the activity description, pre-approved signature, organization location, telephone number, sponsor`s name & signature, date completed, number of hours, student`s signature, date, parent`s signature and date. When the student has completed the forty hours of service, the principal will decide whether the student has met the volunteer requirement, and if so, will record it as completed on the student`s official transcript.

Faiazza estimated that she spends an average of two hours a week on supervising the nearly 1000 students at Henry Street High School; however, there are peak periods when she spends an entire day on this program. I asked what happened if the requirement was not met, and she replied that the student cannot graduate. It is a problem for some students. In 2008, 58.8% of the 211 Grade Eleven students had not yet completed their requirement. "We got on the phone, we talked to parents, we offered help," she said. One year later, by the end of their final high school year, June 2009, 7.6% of the potential graduating class still had not met the requirements. With more prompting, most of the students finished their service before graduation day in October 2009.

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Only four out of 196 students, 2%, failed to graduate, because they had not met the prescribed government regulation. In years to come, those students may return to school to meet this requirement. I asked Faiazza why she thought that they don`t comply, and she replied, "There are some students, although very few, who were not able to connect with a volunteer experience that they found rewarding," and she commented that some obviously did not yet realize that they could need a graduating certificate as proof of obtaining a high school education in order to get a job or pursue other chosen ventures.

Next I met with five Henry Street High School students in the conference room at the school and posed four initial questions: 1) How much responsibility did you have to assess the needs and plan strategies to help the people served in your project? 2) Did you meet someone with a very different ideology than yours and how did you handle it? 3) Did you meet someone from a different race or with a physical handicap that you would not have otherwise met if you had not been a volunteer? 4) Did the experience change you and how?

Kate, age seventeen, spoke first. "I had a lot of responsibility," she said. In the summer she had gone to Toronto to work in a soup kitchen making food for homeless people and making sandwiches, which she and others handed out to street people at night. She learned that those homeless people were just like all of us, but were "down on their luck." She found herself feeling sympathy and not pity for their situation. Also she had gone to Philadelphia to work with refugees from Somalia who, fresh off the boat, had just arrived in the U.S. They were Moslems, a different religion than Kate`s, and had to struggle because they didn`t speak English. Again she realized that they were not very different from all of us. She has been offered a summer paying position with that outreach organization. Rosalind, age fifteen, agreed that she discovered that people with less material resources are much like all of us. Elizabeth, age fourteen, spoke about working during the summer at a camp, which helped children with disabilities, such as cerebral palsy and autism, relate to animals. "At first it was scary working with animals. You had to be comfortable with animals before you could work with children." She found it interesting to see how the children reacted differently to their parents than to the staff, and she observed different styles of parenting. Jeff and Matt, both age sixteen, chose to coach young boys` sports teams. Jeff said he liked to feel that he could share the methods he had used to improve his skills. We joked that Matt, a six-foot-tall basketball player, must have had the six-to-nine-year-old boys he coached looking up to him like a Canadian Idle, because of his skills and height. He still sees one of his prodigees who is now attending Henry Street.

When asked if they had become aware of the work civic leaders played in the community, none responded. Kate knew several students who hated the project, and she attributed their attitude to poor project choice. "They go back to their grade school to volunteer because it is easy, but it is boring, so they don`t like it."

The official assessment of the Ontario Mandatory Requirement: An official assessment of the impact of High School Mandatory Community Service in Ontario was conducted by Laurier Institute for the study of Public Opinion and Policy, Wilfrid Laurier University, 2007 and written by Steven D. Brown, Ph.D, et al. (It should be noted that this study involved only students who went on to university after high school graduation, and that this university is predominantly a liberal arts university with an enrolment of about 10,000 students. The ethnic background is more homogeneous than other larger, more ethnically diverse universities in Ontario. The sample involved 1,293 respondents.)

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Their conclusions: 1) Mandating community service draws students into the volunteer sector who probably would not go there if not required to do so. 2) There was no significant difference between the civic involvement of students who freely chose to volunteer and those who were mandated to perform service. 3) Continued civic engagement is conditional upon the student`s sustained, positive experience as a volunteer student. 4) Students who had active guidance counsellors and parents who were involved in the community were more likely to have a positive experience. 5) Regardless of whether the student had a positive experience or not, they held mandatory volunteering in high regard for promoting engaged citizens. 6) The placement process is central to the program`s success. 7) Students most often cited the feeling of making a contribution and of being appreciated by the organization as the important positive feature. 8) Students who volunteered in one venture over a long period had the most positive responses. Views about the program fall into three categories: more help is needed in choosing the volunteer program; the students need more monitoring during the service; volunteering should not be mandated. (www.wilfridlaurier.ca/lispop/PDF%20working%20paper/WPS6/pdf)

Overall Conclusions: If mandatory community service becomes the norm, it will change the way people relate to each other and the way communities function to meet the needs of their citizens. A volunteer program needs good supervision. Whether mandated or offered freely, volunteers bring far-reaching benefits to the people and programs served. More study is needed concerning ways to encourage volunteering and to improve programs.

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