By Ana Veciana-Suarez, McClatchy Newspapers
To encourage social responsibility and civic engagement, most high schools require volunteer hours for graduation. But for some reluctant students, community service becomes one more dreaded assignment to rush through.
“There are so many opportunities out there, yet too many students wait until the last minute to get their hours,” says Christine Siwek, community-service coordinator for Cooper City High School in Broward. “They come to me in the last part of their senior year desperate for a project, and by then it becomes a burden.”
Looking ahead to the two-week winter break, when many students try to rack up hours, what can parents do to steer them toward meaningful community service?
Plenty. The key, experts say, is to match their volunteer efforts with their interests. Care about the environment? Organize a beach cleanup. Like working with children? Tutor after school. Thinking about becoming a doctor? Volunteer at a hospital.
“It would be terrific if students could be engaged in an activity that’s important to them and ideally gives them some experience that could lead to a long-term vocation or avocation,” says Melissa May, who teaches a class in nonprofit communications at New York University.
When project and student are well matched, volunteers say they get at least as much out of the experience as the intended beneficiaries.
“It really has helped me with my patience,” says Melinda Agron, a senior at Coral Reef Senior High School who tutors an autistic fifth-grader three times a week. “I’ve learned how to handle difficult situations. And I get a lot of joy to see how excited he gets when I’m around.”
In most school districts around the country, community service is a graduation requirement. Broward County, Fla., public school students must complete 40 hours. In Miami-Dade, each school must set its own standards.
Many special programs and scholarships also require volunteer hours. Students who want to qualify for the Florida Academic Scholar Award, which pays tuition at public universities, must complete 75 hours, for example. Those seeking an International Baccalaureate diploma, such as Melinda Agron, are required to clock 150 hours and present a portfolio of their work.
“Some students really get into it,” says Mike Roland, student activities liaison for the Broward School District. “They go all out and they feel they’re doing something significant.”
More than 3,000 Broward seniors were awarded silver cords at graduation last spring signifying that they had completed at least 250 hours of community service — double the number who achieved that distinction in 1989.
Still, “every teenager pretty much starts not wanting to do it,” says Ali Segovia, a sophomore at Hialeah Gardens Senior High who has been volunteering with Hands on Miami for three years. “They think it’s like homework.”
Initially, Ali herself was a reluctant camper at a week-long Hands On Miami volunteer camp. As a seventh grader trying to complete a 10-hour requirement for Immaculate Conception Catholic School in Hialeah, she helped clean up Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. That got her hooked.
The experience “made me more aware of what is out there in the community and how I can make a difference,” she says. It didn’t hurt that she was working on the beautification project with friends.
Like Ali, Cooper City senior Nate Shammay began putting in his hours because it was something he had to do. Now, as a member of his school’s Key Club, he organizes service projects including the Souper Bowl of Caring, a food drive that has collected more than 8,600 cans in the past three years.
“I really do think I’m making a difference,” Nate says, “and that gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
Having fun and making a difference are two rewards of community service that parents should emphasize, experts say.
“If you have both,” says Broward Schools’ Roland, “you’ve hit a home run. The student will likely continue (volunteering) even after it’s not a requirement.”
Ulises Bustamante, a junior at the Young Men’s Academy at MacArthur South, used to get in trouble at school. Working with special-education students at Neva King Cooper Educational Center in Homestead now has him dreaming of launching a nonprofit after college to provide art lessons to underprivileged students.
“It changed my view of my life and what I can do,” Bustamante says. “It showed me that there were people worse off than me. I tell my friends that this is the kind of thing that will help them out in life someday. I really believe that what goes around comes around.’ ”
Here’s how parents can help students make the most of community service requirements.
Let the student choose the project or volunteer site. Suggestions are fine; imposing your preferences isn’t. “If a student doesn’t connect with the project, the attitude is going to be, ‘Let’s just get through this,’ ” says John Doyle, administrative director for Miami-Dade schools’ division of social sciences.
Match the student’s skills to the work. Some kids are great with their hands. Others like to plan and organize. Nate Shammay, 18, discovered he’s “good at leading other people. I like putting projects together.”
Make it fun. Recruit friends to help. Stefanie Cole, youth program director for Hands on Miami, says her organization works with groups of 10 or more, matching students’ interests, schedules and transportation availability to the project.
Model the behavior you want your child to display. Ali Segovia, 15, who has clocked hundreds of service hours, has seen her mother volunteer at church since she was young.
Help figure out transportation. Allow your young driver to borrow a car or ferry him to his volunteer site. If it’s a group project, ask other parents to help.
Ease up on demands at home if a child is active in extracurricular activities. “It helps if your parents are understanding,” says Laura Comin, a Coral Reef High student who has put in hundreds of volunteer hours. “They have to show some leniency if you can’t get to all your chores.”
Appeal to their self-interest. Many students have launched projects to build college resumes only to find out how much they actually enjoy volunteering.
Don’t let them wait until the last minute. Forty hours of volunteering sounds like a sentence if the student has only two months to complete it. Getting started early in a high school career allows students to switch projects if the first one doesn’t work out.