The Duke of Edinburgh program on P.E.I. has taken a major hit because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Young people between the ages of 14 and 24 achieve their bronze, silver and gold levels in the international award program, by volunteering in their community and developing new skills.
On P.E.I., the program is offered primarily through schools, so when schools were shut down in March because of COVID, all activities also came to an abrupt halt.
Neil Thompson is the president of the Duke of Edinburgh program on P.E.I., as well as the leader at Grace Christian School in Charlottetown, which has about 40 students in the program.
"Here at the school, a lot of the activities that we have for things like service are connected to church work, to community involvement, to school involvement," Thompson said.
"Unfortunately, when school stopped on March 13, churches also stopped many of their in-person services and so that meant for a lot of my students who were volunteering, they weren't able to do any of that."
Thompson said the program had to look for different ways in which the students could complete their volunteer hours, many of them using technology.
"Some students were able to Zoom with older relatives or set up some calls with seniors that normally wouldn't have any contact with people," Thompson said.
"Some of our students also tutored online, with younger students that were having difficulty reading or our international students that are learning to speak English."
The pandemic also forced the school to cancel a service trip in May to Jamaica, where the grade 11 and 12 students go every second year, fulfilling one of the requirements of the gold level of the Duke of Edinburgh program.
"We've developed some relationships with schools and nursing homes and orphanages in Jamaica, and our students are able to go and spend about eight days in Jamaica doing different service projects," Thompson said.
Thompson said all international projects were cancelled because of COVID-19, leaving program leaders across the country scrambling.
"That has led to some trepidation, certainly with the Duke of Edinburgh staff across Canada," Thompson said.
"Because we have a number of students in Grade 12, if they don't complete their gold award at the end of Grade 12, it may be difficult for them when they move out of the school system to continue the award."
No chance to recruit
The shut down of P.E.I. schools because of COVID-19 also meant the program wasn't able to recruit new members for this school year.
"Right now, we would have probably, on average, about 300 students participating on a regular basis in the program. Last year prior to COVID, we probably had close to 650 that would be regularly participating," Thompson said.
Thompson said participants pay a $50 registration fee, so the drop in numbers is also hitting the program financially.
"We are right now at a loss of about 50 percent of where we would have been last year, that's created about a $12,000 to $13,000 hole in our budget for P.E.I.," Thompson said.
"We are hoping that through some programs, maybe even through the Department of Education, that there could be some resources available."
Thompson said the Duke of Edinburgh program continues to evolve, coming up with new virtual ways for participants to achieve their levels, through what they're calling #TheAwardatHome.
Several of Thompson's students at Grace Christian will also be taking part in the program's first virtual Passion to Purpose conference on Nov. 14th, including Grade 12 student Emily Chong.
The conference aims to support young people in running a community project during the pandemic.
"For my service projects, I've been creating these videos for my church where I create these scripts and teach kids about like different topics like determination and faith, we use these puppets to showcase all of these stories," Chong said.
"It's difficult, but learning how to adapt to change is definitely a skill that we have to use and learn for our future."
Grace Christian student Chen-Yu Hsu went home to Taiwan when COVID-19 closed down the school, and was able to continue his volunteer activities there.
"The Duke of Edinburgh program is still important during COVID," Hsu said.
"We can find our skill development and we can do service during COVID in order to keep our confidence of our future."
The program also includes a challenge called the Adventurous Journey which, at the bronze level, involves walking 20 kilometres, camping outside overnight and making their own food.
"The difference, when there is COVID, we have to have our own tents, and we also can stay in our own backyard when we finish at night," said Grade 9 student Kenneth Liang, who joined the program in September.
Thompson said his hope is that, as students and teachers settle into the school year, they will come back to the Duke of Edinburgh program.
"Now that October, November has rolled around, more and more teachers are settling in and able to look at this valuable activity for their students, especially from grades 9 to 11, which would be our target market," Thompson said.
"I'm confident with the great teachers we have on P.E.I. and the past support we have, that as we work through the winter, 2021 will be a much better year for our program than 2020."
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