Back in the dark ages, when I was in high school, if you were a repeat offender of petty crimes, like being late to class, chewing gum and/or your uniform skirt being too short, the principal would resort to sentencing you to community service. Nursing homes and hospitals, mainly.
Today high schools across Australia recognise the value of teaching youth about the joys of helping others. That the opportunity to be of service is a priviledge, sometimes even a duty. Which is a vastly different perspective than punishment.
From as young as year 7 when students are 12 or 13, the concept of volunteering is introduced by teachers in the HSIE (Human Sciences and its Environment) faculty.
In New South Wales, when in Years 9 and 10, all students in Public Schools tare encouraged by the DEC (Department of Education and Communities) Student Volunteering Awards program to undertake a minimum of 20 hours of volunteering.
In appreciation of this contribution to the community, students receive Certificates (Bronze, Silver, Gold and Diamond respectively) for completing 20, 40, 60 and 80 hours of volunteering. Students that achieve 150+ hours of volunteering receive the exclusive Black Opal certificate.
In both private and public schools the Duke of Edinburgh Award has become very popular. Originating in 1956 in the UK, it has spread to over 120 countries. It encourages youth aged 14 to 25 to undertake a balanced program of voluntary self-development activities, and provides achievement awards in 3 tiers from a minimum of 6 months to 18 months. Volunteering is one of the 4 mandatory components, in addition to Physical Recreation, Skill and Adventurous Journey.
Tony Rudd, principal of Manly Secondary Schools in Sydney points out that students not only acquire a more mature view of the world when they study global inequalities but when they work first hand with less fortunate people a number of beneficial side affects can happen. “Firstly, they disconnect from their technology and get the one-on-one connection. Our students that have gone overseas to places like Cambodia, gain an appreciation for the basics of human needs like having clean water and the luxury of a tap that provides it. They come back excited by the adventure of travel to a place so different to what they’ve known all their life, and aware of how lucky they are to live here. They become better students, nicer people.”
In addition to local community service, many schools will offer group participation projects overseas as well as fundraising for projects. It’s a rarity today to find a school without a volunteer program or a coordinator on staff. Over 50 Australian schools have participated in the popular Tabitha Foundation Programs working on building shelter while others have focused on providing clean drinking water with Trailblazers.
Isabel Mack was just 12 years old when she first volunteered on a Tabitha project in Cambodia. “I began to understand how big inequality and poverty is within our world,” she said in the book Unsung Heroes Cambodia. Isabel has now been back several times. “Although we are so distant geographically and culturally I am motivated to help. As a modern Australian teenager/ young adolescent, this experience will always beat getting the latest i-pod or the latest clothes.”
That is a quite a refreshing comment from a young person. When I was 17, I didn’t enjoy collecting the rubbish in the Burn Unit at the local hospital instead of hanging out with my friends.
But today I look back and thank my Catholic high school for planting the seeds of what has grown into one of the most treasured aspects of my life. Including volunteering as a mainstream focus to high school curriculums will teach all students (and not just the naughty) how to add depth and richness to their lives.