Volunteering: Not a Requirement

Service Learning, A.K.A volunteerism, has recently been an important part of preparing high school students, and even those younger, to be an active engaged citizen. There is no doubt that when you serve others, you receive a sense of community, empathy, and  responsibility to society.

I did not set out to be a role model for volunteering. It just happened. Volunteering let me do something I loved – teach students. It let me engage them in our natural world, which is something I feel we all need to learn to do in order to save our planet.  You see, I was required to volunteer as I obtained my master gardener certification in 2004.  But, the requirement was and has been for only for 24 hours per year. My volunteer role, just as the garden club facilitator and teacher, turned into several hundred hours a year for the past twelve years! Truly, it was a job that for which I was never paid, but a job I loved and did of my free will. Many benefited, including myself.

And that, I feel, is the key for volunteering. Love the activity to which you decide to commit your time.  This was also the successful element in my oldest son’s service learning requirement for his virtual high school, five years ago. 180 hours of service was required! This is more than I have ever heard of any high school requiring. Had it not been for him being able to assist in his former elementary school’s library or play keyboard for the show choir band the entire semester, two activities he enjoyed, it would have been gruelling.  For some students, it might have been impossible to meet the requirement of this many hours.

When we require our students to volunteer as a criteria for membership in an organization like National Honor Society,  something is lost. In my opinion, the volunteering should not start with the membership, but come before it, and be performed just because it is a good thing to do in order to become that active engaged citizen in the future. In other words, it’s a step along a path. But, it should not be a step taken just because it is required or because the student will earn a “membership” because of it. Volunteering should be done of one’s free will, in an area one deems important and enjoyable, but necessary.

A couple of days ago, I saw something reassuring. While assisting my son in filling out a scholarship application (his first of a few more to come), we noted that he needed to list his volunteer activities.  This, of course, was not a surprise. Nor was it a problem. He’s helped with food drives, weeded the high school gardens, and did background research on materials needed to create a maker space at our high school, among others.   But, the thing that reassured me was that the scholarship application was clear in that if ANY of those volunteer activities were required, they could not count or be listed on the application. The absence of requirement also had to be certified by the school guidance counselor.  This means that he volunteered his time of his free will and not for something in return. I hope more institutions and organizations begin to change their mindset regarding volunteering and align more with this scholarship application’s philosophy; if it is required, it does not count!

Do the work because it needs to be done. Do the work because you love it. Do the work to grow as a person. Just do not expect anything in return. This is what true volunteerism should look like on paper and in real life.

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