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he Guelph Contemporary Dance Festival's volunteer applications doubled in 2009. Here, Kathy Chen, 17, Alexia Kuan, 14, Alisha Oliver, 14, Jessica Su, 14, Bernadette Cruz, 15, and Chantal D'Souza, 16, practice playing an 'ice breaker' game they will teach to campers.
he Guelph Contemporary Dance Festival's volunteer applications doubled in 2009. Here, Kathy Chen, 17, Alexia Kuan, 14, Alisha Oliver, 14, Jessica Su, 14, Bernadette Cruz, 15, and Chantal D'Souza, 16, practice playing an 'ice breaker' game they will teach to campers.

Want to help out? Get in line, kid Add to ...

Ah, March Break. A blissful time for kids to escape the pressures of school, filled with lazy mornings and carefree afternoons.

Or to work harder than ever.

For many Canadian students, this month's reprieve from the class bell is a chance for another kind of serious clock punching: volunteerism.

Catherine Liddell, 17 at the time, worked last March Break from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. as an arts-camp counsellor in Guelph, Ont., helping a teacher wrangle a group of four-to-12-year olds - for no wages.

But she said she was thrilled to have found something related to her career dreams, happy to be working full-time. "I'm really interested in art," Liddell says, adding that she would one day like to go to teachers' college.

For students who must complete a set number of volunteer hours in order to graduate from high school - 40 hours in Ontario, for instance - March Break has increasingly become a handy window of class-free time. And if there was ever a year to give back instead of goof off, this is it. The recession is putting a crimp in travel budgets; and many parents are tied to their cubicles.

What else is a bored teenager to do? Some charities report that applications from the teen crowd have as much as doubled this year over last.

Volunteer co-ordinator Daniel Poulin of the Guelph Contemporary Dance Festival, which runs the annual March Break camp at which Ms. Liddell volunteered, says he was bombarded with requests.

It's the same story at the Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto. Rachel Singer, who runs its March Break volunteer program, says she had to limit the number of volunteers a day to 60, and students must be in Grades 9-12, to ensure that high school students can complete their community service requirements.

Even bigger charities are seeing the need for a game plan as interest grows. Daily Bread engineered a new program this year, dubbed March Break Madness, aimed at teens 15 or older. The charity has created a website, hungrycity.ca, to steer students through the registration process. Through kid-friendly e-mail exchanges, they sort out everything from shift times to what to wear.

Ms. Singer says that has streamlined what can be a messy process (in previous years, many students showed up during the break unannounced), and she hopes it instills a dose of independence among volunteers. The system makes kids responsible for booking their shifts themselves, for instance.

"Students don't always know how to ask for help," she says. "They know they need to help. What we found [in previous years]was parents were calling in and booking things for students."

Volunteer co-ordinators say their goal is to make March Break volunteering meaningful for teens, whether the kids are doing it for economic, altruistic or duty-bound reasons. If a charity can manage the influx, it may land lifelong devotees. "You don't just want to put kids to work getting coffee," Ms. Singer says.

The March Break Madness program runs during the week of March 15-19, and students are asked to bring a donation and stay for a full day of volunteering, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, check out their website.

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