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What volunteer programs are available for high-school grads? Add to ...

The question

Our son will be finishing up high school next year. He had planned on applying to Katimavik, but sadly that is no longer an option. We are wondering if there are any other similar programs that would allow him to volunteer and live and work with other young people until he heads off to university?

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The answer

When Kim Plewes, of Oakville, Ont., graduated from high school, her parents gave her the graduation gift she had been dreaming of: They sent her to a garbage dump.

Ms. Plewes became a volunteer at a school in Riverton, Jamaica, a small city that has grown up in the landfill site of Jamaica’s capital city, Kingston. The impoverished denizens of Riverton make their houses, their clothing, their livelihoods and even their meals out of what they can scrounge from the dump.

Each day, Ms. Plewes and other volunteers would help to teach lessons and play with the kids in the crowded, noisy one-room building that serves as Riverton’s school.

Canadian youth leaving high school are still fairly young – 18 to 19. Most haven’t had much experience outside the academic setting. Working or volunteering at home or overseas can provide an opportunity to grow as an individual, and to return more ready to tackle the next part of their life – whether postsecondary education or starting a career.

Ms. Plewes tells us that her experience proved invaluable in helping her decide what to study in university. “I brought unique real-world experience into the classroom. The experience has really enhanced what I’m learning,” she says. “This was the most incredible graduation gift they could have given me – that worldly perspective.”

In the United States, the Peace Corps creates almost 10,000 long-term volunteer opportunities abroad for American youth every year. The AmeriCorps program offers a staggering 75,000 annual volunteer opportunities and internships within the U.S.

While there are many options for short-term volunteer placements here, Canada has nothing quite on that scale. Here are some possibilities for young Canadians seeking longer-term opportunities lasting a month or more:

Canada World Youth has an exchange program that brings together young Canadians with youth from other countries such as Vietnam, Honduras and Ghana. In each program group, nine young people from one of those countries join nine Canadians to spend three months volunteering in a community in Canada. The whole group then travels to spend another three months on a volunteer project in the visiting youths’ country. Almost 800 youth participated in CWY programs last year.

Uniterra, a partnership of the World University Service of Canada and the Centre for International Studies and Co-operation, takes Canadian volunteers 18 and older to support local initiatives in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Placements can last up to two years.

Religious and service organizations often have their own volunteer programs or can connect you to programs through partner organizations. The United Church of Canada, for example, promotes internships and volunteer opportunities for youth in China, Guatemala, Kenya, the Philippines and South Korea. They last six months to a year.

Some are religious in nature, others are open to anyone. Local parishes may have their own individual initiatives. If you are a member of a religious group, talk to your religious community leader.

Community-service organizations such as the Rotary or Lions clubs have programs both through their international organization and through local clubs. Rotary International’s New Generations Exchange offers overseas opportunities in more than 150 countries lasting several weeks to several months, and can include home stays, internships or volunteer projects. Where you can go and what you will be able to do on the exchange differs depending on the local Rotary club in your area.

Although shorter, an interesting domestic option is the Canadian Roots initiative, which brings together aboriginal and non-aboriginal youth for one-to-three-week exchanges in native communities. The exchanges focus on education and cultural connection, but also include a service component in the host communities such as helping to build a cultural centre.

When the U.S. Peace Corps surveyed past participants in 2011, 92 per cent said their volunteer experience had changed their lives for the better. Your son or daughter might not jump at the idea of going to a garbage dump, but there are plenty of opportunities that will pique their interest and give them an experience they will treasure.

Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free the Children. Follow Craig at facebook.com/craigkielburger and @craigkielburger on Twitter. Send questions to Livebetter@globeandmail.com.

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