The term community service refers to any act that is performed for the benefit of the community at large. Acts can range from a one-time effort to collect canned goods for the local food pantry to a weekly commitment to serve meals to the homeless. People do not receive financial compensation for their services, although a number of award programs exist to recognize the contributions of volunteers.
In many cases, community service is performed as part of a person's membership in a social organization. Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts may volunteer to read to the elderly residents at a local nursing home or collect toys to distribute to needy children in the community. Members of a church fellowship may take a weekend trip to help build houses for Habitat for Humanity. A professional association for accountants may organize an effort to provide low-income people with tax preparation assistance.
A person does not have to be a member of a specific organization to participate in community service activities, however. Many people choose to volunteer as a way to meet other people with similar interests, much like how one might socialize at a nightclub or a sporting event. Volunteering can be a great way for retirees to remain active in their community. Stay at home parents often use volunteer work to keep their professional skills sharp during their break from the workforce.
Community service, while ideally a voluntary act, is sometimes required by schools as a condition for high school graduation. In addition to enhancing a student's college application, studies have shown that teenagers who volunteer typically show improved academic performance. Under mandatory service arrangements, teenagers must complete a specified number of hours of supervised community service per semester. However, they are usually allowed to choose activities that best fit their own personal interests, such as singing in the church choir or helping to organize library books.
Community service may also be ordered as punishment for a crime. In the case of nonviolent offenders, such as people convicted of drunk driving, it may be ordered instead of jail time. For incarcerated inmates, community service is sometimes required as part of the prison's rehabilitation program. Cleaning up trash, removing graffiti, planting trees, or building playground equipment while under the supervision of prison guards are common tasks performed under this type of arrangement.