Volunteers step in, fill school needs


Ten-year-old Ngeri Kamausits in a secluded area plotting data on a graph with adult helper Jane Long at Running Brook Elementary School. "First you need to label your axes," Long instructs softly.

She shows Ngeri how the horizontal line goes across and the vertical line goes up. The two work together until they can connect the dots with a ruler.

"Let's see what you can do for yourself," says Long after their lesson is finished.

Ngeri thinks she could make a graph on her own after working with Long. She had just transferred to the Columbia school and hadn't learned this skill, but the rest of her fifth-grade class had. With Long's help, teacher SuzyMervinewas able to provide the pupil instruction she needed without taking time away from the rest of her class.

Long is one of about 40 WeCarevolunteers who work regularly at the school. The WeCareTeam is a program of the Columbia Association's Volunteer Corps.

In 1998, organizers LillianShapiro, LindaLazaroffand SandyFairhurstread a Sun article about changing demographics in the neighborhood and special needs at the school. There were already a lot of parents helping at the school, but Fairhurst felt the team could enhance the volunteer program.

The group met with the school administration and brainstormed ideas, coming up with the innovative program. According to Fairhurst, "Just attention itself makes kids want to please and they work a little harder."

The volunteers, mostly retired professionals, visit on regularly scheduled days. Such consistency fosters relationships with the children, who look forward to sharing their work.

Some have become stakeholders in the school, interested in making positive changes by serving on the School Improvement Team. Others help children with lessons one-on-one or in groups. Still others shelve books, prepare teacher materials or perform clerical duties.

Assistant Principal JasonMcCoyis thrilled to have so much extra help at his school.

"It's wonderful to have these resources and have them so involved in the school. They come with so much experience from previous jobs," he says, noting the volunteers' rich variety of professional backgrounds.

The team works closely with school staff members to ensure that volunteer activities are structured to augment and reinforce instruction without intruding.

Their efforts are definitely paying off with the staff.

Mervine, who says Long is her guardian angel, tailors her work around the retired teacher's training.

Because there is a wide range of abilities in her class, she uses Long to help various pupils stay on target. With Long in class, "it's like having two teachers," Mervine says.

Long enjoys her volunteer time because she gets to stay current in her field and is enriched by the experience.

"Kids are so happy to see you," she says, and it shows as she enters the classroom and receives a big hug from one child.

Other volunteers speak of the rewards received from their involvement.

NormFairhurstand JackLewishave grown children who previously attended Running Brook. Lewis, a retired microbiologist, finds it interesting and beneficial to volunteer. He enjoys working one-on-one with children and "likes to hear children's ideas and how they express themselves."

Fairhurst, an engineer who retired in March, finds the kids delightful and enjoys the benefits of being exposed to a variety of children and cultures.

McCoy believes they have developed a true partnership with the WeCare Team. He and the volunteer corps are taking what they have learned at Running Brook and are expanding the program to Bryant Woods Elementary next year, where McCoy will serve as principal.

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