What is Community Service?

Suffolk’s public schools are considering making community service (50 hours) mandatory for high school students. They’ve considered making exceptions for transfer students, or those with extenuating circumstances, but that’s not the issue I have with the proposal.

The problem I have is with the general principle of the thing.

If community service is mandatory, is it really still community service?

Community service is supposed to be what you do to help other people. What I think people forget is that you are doing it to help other people, and ONLY other people. You don’t do it to get paid, and you don’t do it to get rewarded, except for maybe that warm fuzzy feeling you get at the end of the day knowing you made a difference, and the fact that people will think you are a good person. (It is rewarding, sure, but that isn’t WHY you do it!)

But suddenly, the school system is trying to reward kids for those 50 hours of their time, rewarding them with a high school diploma. Suddenly students aren’t serving just their communities, they are serving themselves, too.

And in my eyes, that totally defeats the purpose of the whole exercise, instilling in students the value of giving to others and taking care of the community, for its own sake.

We don’t want (young) people to feel like the only time to help others is when it helps them, too. In fact, the best time to help others, when it is the most rewarding, is when you help people even when doing so is in not in line with your own interests. In business, this would be when you give somebody something instead of making money selling it to them, and then… DON’T write the donation off on your taxes. And don’t tell anyone, either.

Because what it’s all about is doing the right thing purely because it’s the right thing to do. Making students do community service in order to graduate is not a way to get them to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do- it is way to get them to do the right thing because if they don’t, they are punished. And that isn’t going to accomplish anything- it’s not going to build their character, it’s not going to make them put others ahead of themselves, and it’s not going to lower drop-out rates.

That does leave us with a question though, how do you get students to want to give back without dangling carrots in front of their noses or carrying a big stick? Valuing community service isn’t something that you can instill in someone in four years, at the end of their public school career. It’s an attitude that has to be planted at a young age and nurtured through the years. I think the best way is to talk to them about why giving back is important, lead by example, and make sure they know what opportunities are available. Don’t hold their hand- empower them instead!

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