Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Teenager gives a little, gets a lot back

PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen
DATE: 2005.03.30
EDITION: Final
SECTION: City
PNAME: City Editorial
PAGE: B4
COLUMN: Linda Mondoux
BYLINE: Linda Mondoux
SOURCE: The Ottawa Citizen

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Teenager gives a little, gets a lot back

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When Nathalie Hoang stepped in to the Volunteer Ottawa office in 2002, she never expected that, three years later, she would be spending every Saturday morning at the Glebe Centre -- the sixth floor to be exact -- sharing secrets with a group of women five times her age. And she certainly never dreamed she would find a new grandmother.

But that's exactly what happened. And she has the former Ontario Conservative government to thank for it.

Nathalie, at 17, is a vivacious young woman who has no time for those who continue to rail against the compulsory community service program introduced by the Tories. The program, since embraced by the McGuinty Liberals, aims to promote volunteerism and the importance of giving back to the community. The rules are simple: In order to graduate, students must complete 40 hours of community service during their four years of high school.

When first introduced, the program's detractors -- everyone from students and teachers to parents -- labelled it "forced labour" and "tyranny." The debate has since died down, but Nathalie, now in Grade 12 at St. Pius X, says she still hears grumblings in the hallways of her Catholic high school.

"People are just too self-centred," she says on a recent Saturday, 30 minutes before the launch of social hour at the Glebe long-term-care facility.

But the threat of not graduating is apparently working its charms.

According to Silvio Rigucci, a vice-principal at St. Pius, "in four years, not one student who has had the opportunity to graduate hasn't done so because they didn't complete their 40 hours of community service."

A random sampling of schools over at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board found that only about 10 per cent of students in graduating classes have yet to complete their 40 hours.

For example, at Bell High School, about 250 students are in Grade 12 this year, and only 20 have yet to complete their community service. "We'll be chasing them," says Marilou Ferguson, the school's guidance technician. No one has failed to come through yet, she says.

Nathalie has been a volunteer at the Glebe Centre since August 2002, after telling the folks at Volunteer Ottawa, "I like to work with people."

She wasn't kidding. And the match, Nathalie agrees, is perfect. "I started doing the patio party, and then the social hour, then I'd wait for two hours and do the bingo for an hour, then I'd do happy hour," she recalls, describing the festive atmosphere of residents joining together for one or two drinks, some music and a chance to chat. By December 2002, Nathalie had completed her 40 hours.

But she was hooked.

"It makes you feel good when you talk to everybody," she says. "You catch up on everybody's stories. It's really nice to feel welcome somewhere."

On this Saturday morning, it's obvious both sides of the volunteer relationship are gaining. The women waiting in a room to have their nails done light up when Nathalie, clearly a favourite, walks in. Her smile is contagious.

And so is her chatter.

At one point, Dorothea Torunski stops by on her way to complete her rounds on the sixth floor. At 85, Dorothea is both a resident and a volunteer at the Glebe Centre. From the beginning, Dorothea and Nathalie forged a special friendship, so special that the young student calls the elderly woman "my adopted grandmother."

"I call her Omi. That's German for grandmother," says Nathalie, with one arm wrapped around her friend.

Nathalie, who wants to be a psychologist and earns money working at a restaurant four days a week while going to high school, says she'll continue to volunteer at the Glebe Centre on Saturday mornings for as long as she's needed. "The only thing that would stop me is if I went to university out of town," she says.

She has this advice for students who may not yet be sold on the community service program: "You should think about what you can give, not what you can take away."

It seems the Tories have created another long-time volunteer. And that's good for Canada. According to a report by Imagine Canada (a new organization combining the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy and the Coalition of National Voluntary Organizations), the non-profit and volunteer workforce in Canada is one of the largest in the world, "outdistancing that in the United States and second only to that in the Netherlands."

With more Nathalies, we can make Canada No. 1.

Linda Mondoux is a copy editor at the Citizen.

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