Reach out and help someone

Schools reach out to nursing homes, orphanages and more

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Every few weeks, 10-year-old Jack visits his friend Michael to do arts and crafts, play games and share a snack. Jack and Michael have been friends for years, and each time they see each other, Michael tells him a new story. Jack's favourites, however, are the ones about Michael's glory days playing hockey for the Buffalo Sabres.

Clearly, Michael isn't like all of Jack's other friends, but that doesn't really matter. Whenever Jack Powell, a Grade 4 student at Kew Park Montessori School in Toronto, Ontario drops by with his classmates to visit the seniors at nearby Versacare Nursing Home, he and Michael have a great time together.

"Michael has a lot of neat stories from playing hockey. Another senior there used to be a doctor in World War II," Jack says. "I like talking to the seniors. They have a lot of experience from when they were younger."

Jack is one of tens of thousands of students at private schools across Canada getting an education that extends far beyond the classroom and into the local neighbourhood, across the country and even overseas. While community service programs have always been an integral part of the independent school system, today they offer students a more diverse range of opportunities than ever to learn more about their world, improve the lives of others and nurture the environment.

The examples of school service initiatives are as plentiful as they are varied. Middle school students at Crescent School in Toronto, Ontario partner with physically challenged Grade 8 students at nearby Sunny View Public School and help them with their assignments. Students from Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School in Alberta serve food to homeless people at a Calgary drop-in centre, while students at Niagara Christian College have travelled to Brazil to launch a soccer program for disadvantaged youth.

In keeping with the character-building ethos embraced by independent schools, educators hope these initiatives will foster a strong sense of civic-mindedness that will last students throughout their lives.

"Most of the students at these schools are fortunate enough to enjoy many privileges, and we're teaching them that with privilege comes responsibility," says Susan Hazell, executive director of the Canadian Association for Independent Schools, which represents 75 schools. "We're showing them that there are all kinds of ways for one to give back to the local community at the regional, national and international level."

Private schools have a long history of charity, Hazell says; many of the earliest schools were affiliated with churches or outreach groups. Over the last several years, however, the amount and scope of community service activity have dramatically increased, as has the creativity of the projects.

"It's not just about raising money for certain causes anymore. Students are knitting toques and mittens for the homeless, cleaning up parks or adopting highways," Hazell says. "The opportunities are limitless."

In many cases, participation in these initiatives is also required for graduation. In Ontario, for example, students must complete 40 hours of community service to fulfil provincial secondary school diploma requirements. Other provinces leave the decision of whether to make community service mandatory to individual schools. Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School in Alberta, for example, requires all Grade 11 students to spend half a school day each week involved in some sort of charitable work.

At Kew Park Montessori School, service projects are chosen based on their ability to teach students more about their communities and their world. In addition to visiting Versacare, Kew Park students also buy, wrap and deliver gifts to needy families at Christmas, and have run penny drives for orphaned children with AIDS in Africa. In the case of the latter, students learned about the specific challenges facing the African continent and raised $1,000 for an orphanage.

"By us bringing the world to them in different ways, and bringing an awareness of those who don't have as much as them, who are old, unwell, handicapped or who live in poverty, it broadens their horizons and teaches them empathy," principal Carol Cristiano says.

Part of exposing children to the world they live in has included attuning them to environmental issues, a relatively new development on the community service front that has grown by leaps and bounds. At West Island College in Montreal, Quebec, for example, the school has become active in Roots & Shoots, a worldwide youth-based environmental education program founded by primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall. West Island students have built rock gardens on campus that require little watering, planted trees near the school grounds and learned about wildlife conservation.

To reinforce these lessons in social and environmental citizenship, students often get the chance to include their families in the action. For example, last fall, students at Kingsway College School (KCS) in Etobicoke participated in the school's first Terry Fox Run along with their parents and their siblings, and raised $11,166.

"We have a parent co-ordinator who works as a liaison between our school's community service club and a volunteer network of parents," says Shelley Audet, one of two community service teacher-leaders at KCS. "They really are community efforts as everyone gets involved - students, families and teachers."

What's also new about the service activity at independent schools is that much of it is being driven by students themselves. Students in Grades 7 and 8 run KCS' community service club. Under the guidance of the teacher-leaders, they conceive, plan and execute service ideas in four main categories: international aid, health and wellness, the environment and local charities. As well, three years ago the school launched a Wall of Service: Each time a student initiates an act of service on his or her own, a brick is added to the wall with the student's name and action written on it. When the wall reaches 100 bricks, students are rewarded with a dress-down day at school.

Among the most active KCS students in community service is 12-year-old Jackie Knapp, who last year initiated and led a fundraiser for prostate cancer research. The project involved selling donated Christmas cards to parents of KCS students, and raised about $300.

"I liked knowing that I was doing something that would help people," Knapp says. "It makes you feel good that you're making a difference in the world."

At many schools, the attempts to develop civic character transcend borders, with students travelling to developing nations around the world to lend their time, talents and compassion. International social projects are a core component of the curriculum at Neuchatel Junior College, a Canadian independent school in Switzerland offering a one-year university preparation program. The school has forged a close partnership with Habitat for Humanity and in April 2005, 25 students travelled to a small town in Romania to help build two houses for needy families. But hauling lumber and driving nails formed only part of the two-week experience. Living in the town and collaborating with local residents to build the houses gave students a first-hand appreciation of the hardships many people face.

"It's not just an isolated experience of a bunch of North American kids arriving, building the houses and leaving," says Norman Southward, Neuchatel's principal. "They are embedded in the community and are helping to build a house with the family that will live in that house. Those students come back and say they have had some of the most fulfilling experiences of their lives."

Whether reaching out to the far corners of the earth or around the corner from the school to orphanages and nursing homes, students involved in community service gain an enriched understanding of their world, and of their own role in it.

To that end, Kew Park Montessori School student and seniors visitor Jack Powell seems to be off to a great start: "It feels good to know that we're helping them and making them happy."

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