Each week, teenage students from Upper Canada College arrived at a Toronto inner-city school to tutor students in grades 3 and 6. And each week a little boy named Noah acted as if he'd never seen them before.
"He was quiet, sometimes silent throughout," recalls Chris Tam, 16. "And he would always look as if we were all complete strangers."
And then came the breakthrough. One day Chris was working with his group on reading and asked Noah for help with a word the others couldn't get. "He told me what that word was - and since then he's talking a lot and taking part," Chris says with satisfaction.
Tutoring inner-city kids - and improving their lives - is just one example of the community service programs that have been fundamental to the life of independent and private schools for years. Befriending the less fortunate, volunteering for local charities or helping with projects abroad awakens students to the needs of the wider world.
Some projects might seem trivial, but private and independent school students are immersed in an environment that is cause-driven, points out Geoff Roberts, head of Crescent School in Willowdale, Ontario. "In an independent school, they live a very good life inside and outside school. I think we have a responsibility to educate the boys that the world is a broad and diverse place. They could be in positions to affect positive change in the community and in the world."
John Lockyer, director of community service at Pickering College in Newmarket, Ontario, believes that if independent and private schools are training a disproportionate number of leaders, they have a responsibility to instil a mentality conducive to volunteering. "They can't work a 60-hour week and still volunteer. It comes down to what kind of society you want."
Peter Sturrup, headmaster at Pickering, which was founded by Quakers, says students need to learn not only the practical side of community service, but the reasons for it. "One of the great benefits of a school like this is we can focus on the why."
Neil Mens, director of community service at UCC's Upper School since 1988, says the school strives to be part of the surrounding community: "I remind the boys that two blocks from Upper Canada is a food bank... that right in our area, we have kids who need a Big Brother."
Many of the boys find service enriching, but some don't, Mens says candidly. Dave Steeper, a science teacher at Holy Trinity School in Richmond Hill, Ontario, concedes that teens are typically "quite inward-focused." "Your goal is the heart, but you can't be unaware of the age and the stage."
Nanci Goldman, who set up the Horizons tutoring program at Upper Canada College, says that once students know they're needed, "they're hooked." Goldman began the Horizons project in 1998 with 26 volunteers going to a handful of schools where students were at risk through poverty. Her volunteer roster now boasts 140 boys who tutor at seven sites - including students who coach hockey at three schools - and in the academic summer school at UCC.
Mentoring has blossomed. Seventeen-year-old Kelvin Cheung, for example, realized a boy he was tutoring had gotten into trouble. So he started coming up to UCC "with two of his friends every Tuesday for homework help, or we might play some basketball. Mostly it's just providing a good atmosphere."
Zakyr Ramzanali, 18, who was in his second year of tutoring, says he doesn't want "to be sappy or anything, but everybody likes to be a role model."
Goldman says she has 10 schools on a waiting list. "We're just restricted by the days of the week and the hours."
At Pickering College, OAC students Beth Allan and Laura Ann Lobraico offered to head the community service committee after visiting a retirement home as part of family studies.
Beth's "elderly friend" was a depressed woman whose vision was so poor she saw a dog in a nearby yard as a mere blur. "I took my dog the next week and when we went out for a walk, she was telling people it was her dog.... Then, for the first time, she made friends with another resident."
Laura Ann marvels at how the seniors look forward to the students' arrival every Friday. "My elderly friend had Alzheimer's disease. Some weeks you would have the same conversation as the week before. I found it heartbreaking. But out of all the hours I've done, that was the highlight. It felt so good: somebody actually cared that we were coming."
Geoff Roberts of Crescent School calls this "the epiphanic moment" - the instant when students engaged in community service realize they can make a difference. "They learn about themselves and what they're capable of doing."
Community service made news in Ontario when the provincial Ministry of Education made 40 hours of it a requisite for a high-school diploma, starting three years ago. But most independent and private schools have long included community service in their missions. Fifty hours is the minimum for an International Baccalaureate diploma. Upper Canada College recognizes 100 hours of service with a silver pin, 250 hours with a gold.
"I think a majority of our parents find it part of the appeal that our philosophy is to get involved," suggests Rob Kennedy, a geography teacher at Holy Trinity School in Richmond Hill, Ontario.
Holy Trinity students ran a day care for families attending a conference on a genetic disease. Seventy-five of them pitched in at a Big Sisters fund-raising run, directing parking, registering runners, marshalling, handing out water, "haunting" the trick-or-treat trail.
Besides the altruism, "I think students realize that when they are going for jobs or applying to universities, these things help," Kennedy adds.
Leadership blossoms as well. Sarah Cox and Andrea Smith ran a 30-hour "famine" at Holy Trinity School that collected money for World Vision. The 17-year-old friends found themselves staying after school to arrange for video games, projectors, drinks, freezies and the seven-foot sub that broke the fast.
"You get pledge forms from people who sponsor you not to eat," Sarah explains. "We had a bowling trip, Twister going on in the halls in the middle of the night and pillow fights, so it was fun. You can't change the world, but you can give some children who aren't as fortunate as us some meals.
"When I came to this school, I was the most quiet student," she confesses. "To think I stood up in chapel and made announcements.... It gave me more confidence in myself."
Andrea volunteers at the Metro Toronto Zoo, but the "famine" was the first major event she had ever organized. It took months of work. As treasurer, she was still chasing around a month after school ended to get forms signed and witnessed.
For any students, "just trying to get their hours" organizing projects like that would be too much effort, says Holy Trinity's Dave Steeper. "There's no big fanfare; we do it because of the intrinsic value."
At Crescent School, students work tirelessly at fund-raising. They choose a different project each month and bring donations for the Salvation Army, run a carnival for the United Way and wash cars to benefit Operation Eyesight and Camp Oochigeas, Canada's first residential camp for children who have cancer.
"Senior students also co-operate in a fashion show called Portfolio with the girls of Bishop Strachan School, Branksome, St. Clement's and Havergal. It raises from $30,00 to $60,00 for women's shelters," says teacher Rex Taylor.
Crescent's Geoff Roberts says "one of the most powerful things for our boys is when someone comes in and speaks passionately about their cause. The end may be money raised, but they get to see an individual's enthusiasm and passion. I think modelling events cannot be measured short term."
While raising dollars is important, Roberts emphasizes, understanding comes with rolling up your sleeves. The school does not serve as a placement agency. By Grade 9, students are expected to be resourceful in identifying a community need and pitching in to meet it.
Taylor cites "an unbelievable range" of projects - "obviously hospital work.... There's a lot of jockeying for volunteer hockey and soccer coaching. One student spent weeks in the summer working in a hospital in Kenya. There's canvassing - for Heart and Stroke, for example - as well as office work. Increasingly, they work in schools, some in reading programs."
At many schools, community service begins early.
At Upper Canada College, starting in Grade 1, each class in the Prep works on a project, in addition to school-wide efforts such as the Terry Fox run and a food bank drive. By Grade 7, students are required to volunteer in the community five hours a week. By Grade 8, that doubles.
Grade 6 students at Pickering College visit a seniors' home. "It's great to go and put smiles on their faces," reports student Tracy Clark. "Some of their families live far away and can't come and visit them."
In an earlier grade, "we did a clean-up. We went into the forest and picked up some garbage. (When I grow up) I might do something like that."
John Lockyer linked his Pickering world religions class with a rehabilitation centre for alcoholics and drug abusers from all walks of life. Each student was assigned one man to talk to regularly. On their own initiative, the students organized a Christmas party complete with baking, toques and toiletries for the men.
"They got to the essence," Sturrup says admiringly, "recognizing there's a need and they can do something."
Five Crescent middle-school students already picture themselves volunteering as adults, with the homeless or the mentally or physically challenged.
Now 13-year-olds Nicholas Hong and Lucas Giampietri and 12-year-olds Michael Smith-Uffen, Lucas Wright and Nikhil Kalra co-ordinate events such as Grub Day, when students pay $2 for the privilege of attending school out of uniform. "You have to give good notice a week early, make sure it's on morning announcements," explains one organizer.
Pickering student Laura Ann Lobraico says community service doesn't have to mean doing something you hate. "You could help at a youth centre in fund-raising events, like a dance party or block sale. At the Y you could help kids play basketball."
Neil Mens of UCC puts the onus on the boys to work with causes that matter to them. "If your thing is architectural conservancy, some of the historical facilities could use your help. Dogs and cats? Try an animal shelter. Theatre? Be a ticket taker at a non-profit theatre. Sports? Help disabled adults with skiing."
He says that "in a given year, our students will work all over the world and for about 150 agencies."
Will early exposure to community service lead to lifelong commitment?
Mens says his school's service requirement is "just to jump start the process." Wherever the students find themselves later, he hopes they will provide leadership in community service.
Says Lockyer simply: "They should look at the world they live in, see where it hurts and help."
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