Learning to give

Ontario high school students have long been required to complete volunteer hours as a condition of graduation. Here’s why it’s beneficial



Volunteering fulfills two criteria for students. Students discover their passions, develop their talents and get involved in humanity, says Nathalie Néron, vice-president of specialized programs at the Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est (CECCE). “They learn the value of engaging with the community,” Néron says. It also fulfills the Ontario high school requirement to have 40 volunteer hours before graduation.

Nathalie Neron. Photo Courtesy Nathalie Neron

The idea of volunteering begins in the younger grades. “We provide the opportunity for younger students to get involved in projects and activities within the school community,” says Néron. “By participating and investing in doing things together, they learn that it is good to give back.” At CECCE, students are encouraged to start accumulating their volunteer hours the summer before entering Grade 9 and to try to do 10 hours a year. “Students have so many choices in where they can get their volunteer hours,” says Néron. “And it’s a great opportunity for them to discover a different working environment and meet new people all while they are giving back to the community.” She is surprised by the number of hours that some students accumulate. She says she’s seen some students with over 500 volunteer hours. “I think the best thing students come away with from volunteering is that they get to learn about themselves,” says Néron. “They get a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, and they feel good about having helped. And our older students are eager to show our younger students how it’s done. And that is a great lesson on how to give back to the community.”    

At Turnbull School, Grade 7 and 8 students take a course in TLC: Teamwork, Leadership and Character. “We provide the students with an introduction to volunteering,” says Gareth Reid, director at Turnbull School, “and why it’s important to be involved and to give back.” Turnbull is well-known for its community involvement with organizations like The Ottawa Hospital and the United Way; in 2016, the City of Ottawa declared a Turnbull School Day to recognize the school for reaching the $1-million mark in fundraising for the community.

Gareth Reid. Photo Courtesy Turnbull School

At Turnbull, lessons on giving also start early — “in senior kindergarten, so by the time our students reach our senior grades, they really understand about needs within the community and why it’s so important to give back,” says Reid. “These are lessons in volunteering that they’ll take with them through high school and university.” Reid says that each year they have several students with many volunteer hours. In addition to acknowledging students on the school’s honour roll, Turnbull also has community service and TLC awards. “These students,” says Reid, “are recognized for the hours they’ve put in and it shows other students the importance of volunteering and fundraising.”

Cheryl Ward, principal at Heritage Academy, sees the benefits of volunteering on both sides. “Community organizations and charities get extra hands and help with their projects and our students get to try something new, develop confidence and learn why giving back is important.” Ward says that the students at Heritage Academy can volunteer in a field that interests them, which can become a huge learning experience. “They learn a sense of responsibility,” says Ward. “And for many, it’s an exposure to a new situation and an understanding of how to work with people. The experience they gain can really help them tackle that first job.”

Ward says that she sees students making those community connections, forming new friendships and that volunteering gives them a sense of purpose. “Volunteering can be the ultimate ‘feel good’ moment and a great motivator,” says Ward. “I’m completely surprised when I see the number of hours some of our students put in. There are many with up to 600 hours. And they asked to continue because they enjoyed it so much.” Ward says that many Heritage Academy graduates have pursued university courses in their volunteer area. “Not only did their volunteering provide valuable life lessons, but they also got on-the-job learning. And that,” says Ward, “is priceless.”