Debt-Freedom = Freedom to do What You Love: Learning from my Co-op Students

              “Would you have worked at your placement this summer if you knew you would get nothing in return?” That was the question I asked of my students on their last day of summer school co-op. Each one had successfully completed the seven-week effort and earned two credits towards a high school diploma. Each one had had, at the very least, a positive experience on the job. But it was the sheer joy demonstrated by some students at their placements that prompted me to ask the question.

Euphoric Drama Boys

Two of the boys, who worked together at a drama camp, were nothing short of euphoric every time I visited them. With astonishing enthusiasm, they would tell me about an activity they had led, a storage room they had organized, a challenging child they’d dealt with, costumes and props they had prepared, or a spontaneous outburst of quirky silliness on the part of the staff – who were, they said, like family. It didn’t matter how mundane the task, how physically demanding the effort, how difficult the challenge, or how small the incident – energy shot out of their every pore as detail spilled out after detail. They LOVED it! I was rather awestruck. How lucky they are, I thought.I hope that somehow, they can make drama a permanent part of their lives. These two answered my question in the affirmative as I knew they would. They were, in fact, going back to their placement right after that final class.

A Natural Teacher of Dance

                Another student who said she would have spent her summer at her placement for nothing in return was also involved in drama. She assisted at a musical theatre camp that she had attended as a child and young teen. The camp was small, and it drew a very talented clientele. My student worked closely with the camp leader, whom she had known for years, and again, there was a sense of family in the group. This girl loves dance, and she took on her teaching role naturally, and with an authority that surprised her. Contained within her strong self-possession was a passionate excitement as she led her group and described the production that was to be the culmination of their work. This student knows that she wants to teach dance or musical theatre, and she’s moving forward with that vision.

Early Childhood Educators

                One of my students had a placement at a daycare centre, and it was so obvious that he was a favourite among the children. During one of my visits, when he was to demonstrate the tasks he performed at work, I had hardly had a chance to talk with him when a preschool girl approached us, shovel in hand, to ask him to bury her feet. Off to the large sand box we went, and my student was essentially swarmed by three-year-olds eager to have their feet buried too. He worked with a steady calm, encouraging patience and cooperative behaviour among his young charges. “He’s always reading to them or building things with them,” his supervisor told me. “He doesn’t really take his breaks. He is so good. He should definitely pursue early childhood education as a career.” That is exactly what he plans to do. Before he left the final class, he told me that he would be returning to his placement the next day because one of the boys had begged him to come back for his birthday.
                Another student worked with slightly older children at a camp designed to help families of lower-income neighbourhoods – most of them recent immigrants. This student had attended the camp himself shortly after he and his family had moved to Canada from the Congo, and he adapted very naturally to his work there. Whether he was helping a child to read or playing basket-ball with a group in the gym, his gentle manner and strong sense of what was proper made him such an asset to leaders and children alike. “Give him all 10s,” said his supervisor, fiercely dedicated to her mission to help her community. “I would give him more if I could.” She has made it clear that she wants him back again next summer. And he has made it clear that he will be there. As this student shyly gave his final presentation before his classmates, he said, “There is nothing like seeing a child learn something.”

Trusted at the Workplace

                Two of my students were trusted with remarkable responsibilities at their placements. One worked in a physiotherapy clinic as an assistant. There was cleaning and laundry involved in her duties, but also more advanced handling of the physio equipment and significant interaction with the patients. “Some of them think I’m a real worker,” she said to me, wide-eyed, during one of my visits. “They don’t realize how young I am – that I’m a student.” This girl had a good rapport with the staff at her placement, but what made the experience rich for her was the connection with patients. “It made me want to go into some kind of therapy – where you’re working with patients one-on-one. Maybe physiotherapy, but maybe speech therapy or occupational therapy.” She’s caught a glimpse of something she loves, and she’ll refine that vision in the years ahead.
The other student whose work involved surprising levels of responsibility had a placement as a book-keeper and marketing assistant at an indoor family fun park. Most of her work was done at a computer in a very ugly office that was being painted and undergoing minor renovations throughout her stay. But it didn’t matter to her. She would have done the work in that dingy office for nothing in return “because I loved working with the people there. They let me do so much.” The establishment’s book-keeper caught up on months’ worth of work thanks to my student’s help. The marketing manager said that whenever he gave her a task to do, she just ran with it. “It was a blessing to have her here,” he said. On occasion, she was free to help out at the facility’s restaurant or games room. Employees at every post welcomed her and expressed appreciation for her work. This student left her placement with a job offer. She’ll be working there part-time through the school year.

The Pizzeria

                Perhaps my favourite workplace visit occurred the day I went to the pizzeria where a student demonstrated “skills learned on the job” by making me a pizza of my choice. The establishment was small and run almost exclusively by the owner, with whom my student worked closely. “He works late,” the owner told me, somewhat baffled. “I tell him he can go home, but he says he wants to stay. So I say, ‘OK, but you don’t have to.’” Somehow, this student burst into life at the pizzeria. He was so grateful to be there, and whether he was doing the grunt work of cleaning or the creative work of pizza preparation, he did it with gusto. He worked far more hours than needed to meet the course requirements. “Do you think you’d like to run a pizza place some day?” I asked him. He shrugged his shoulders, saying he didn’t know. All he knows for now is that he found something of great value. “I’m going to do another co-op placement there during the school year,” he told me during our last class.

Boring Work But Great People

                The student who surprised me most was one who had worked at a drug store for her placement. She had stocked shelves, scanned labels, cleaned cosmetic displays, and shelved returned items. “I don’t want to do this for a living,” she had decided. But she said she would have done the placement for nothing in return. That made no sense to me, and I asked her why. “It was the people,” she explained. “They didn’t treat me like a teenager. They treated me like one of the team. On my last day, I was called into shipping and receiving, and they were all there. They had cards and presents . . . It was so nice!” She had brought in the cards, signed by her co-workers, to show me. It meant the world to her.

Freedom to Do What You Love

                Almost half of my co-op students loved their work so much that they would have done it for nothing in return – no pay, no high school credits. As I chronicle our journey out of debt and read other bloggers’ posts about debt-reduction and financial freedom, the question often arises, “What will you do when you don’t need to work for an income?” I think my students already have their answers. Some combination of expressing personal potential, experiencing sheer enjoyment, and being a valued part of a fabulous team – more like a family – seems to be the magic formula. I hope that as the years pass, these students won’t compromise their potential to do what they love. I hope that as life’s hardships arise, they won’t find refuge in denial, or in self-medication with harmful substances, toxic relationships, or false materialism – all of which can lead to the trap of debt and the erosion of freedom. I hope that they’ll navigate their paths wisely, with eyes wide open, so that they remain free to gravitate towards the people and efforts that combine to offer abundance in life.
I’ll leave the last word to one of the euphoric drama boys, who tried to encapsulate his work experience in a thank you letter to his supervisor. “I don’t know how to describe it otherwise than it fills the soul.”

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  1. I just love how they all got so much positivity about their coop placements and you’ve captured their joy so well. I’m such a fan of Coop programs, having been through University Coop myself and seen so many succeed in both the Uni and HS programs. It really gives the kids confidence, freedom to make mistakes, to learn, to be responsible, to garner respect, to become an adult.

    1. I’m a fan of co-op too! It’s good for super-academic students and barely-academic students alike. It does give them confidence, and it prepares them for the world of work which lies ahead. Thanks for your comment : )

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