On March 5, I had the pleasure of meeting with a handful of parent volunteers at Center School in Mattapoisett. Melanie Vandal, Shannon Giumetti, Monika Whalley, Pamela Souza, Barbara Pepin, and Erin Moreau all made time to meet with me first thing that Wednesday morning. As a mother myself, I have always been curious about what takes place inside the walls of our children’s schools, and who better to shed a little light on the subject than a group of women who spend an abundant amount of time there? These women also give the often unrecognized gifts of patience and compassion to our children and our community.
Melanie began by introducing herself as a mother of two and a volunteer at the school for the past two years. Before that time, she had volunteered at East Fairhaven School. Her reasons for getting involved were that she “wanted to get to know the teachers and the kids as well.” She has enjoyed learning about who her children gravitate towards in school, and has also found that it’s helpful at parent-teacher conferences to have already established a relationship: That way they can get right down to the nitty-gritty.
Shannon spoke up next about her experience with volunteering, saying that she moved to Mattapoisett before her son, Ben, started kindergarten. “He’s my only child. He’s the sole reason I wanted to volunteer.” She found that Center School welcomed her with open arms and now, with her son in 3rd grade, she has made quite a name for herself as a dedicated contributor to the school. “I do it because I can. Volunteering is my life, and I love it.”
Pamela became involved when her daughter started kindergarten as well. “I felt like I knew nothing. I wanted to see how the teachers interacted and see who the kids were. And when you volunteer, you get to know the moms. You get to pick their brains.”
The moms chatted a bit about the principal, Mrs. Rose Bowman. Words such as “fantastic” were used, and Monika claimed that “she’s not a principal, she’s a fairy!”
Monika began volunteering when her eldest daughter started kindergarten at Rogers School in Fairhaven. “I grew up in Europe, and it’s a very different school system there.” Monika said that she wanted to learn more about the school system that her children would be attending and at one point vividly remembers reading somewhere about “recess” and thinking “what is recess?” Her family moved to Mattapoisett at the beginning of this school year, and since then she has been a part of Center School.
Barbara started volunteering when her grandsons began school. She has helped a second grade class to make a quilt that they then donated to the women’s shelter in New Bedford. She’s also taught the children how to make apple-dolls by peeling apples, cutting faces into them, and dipping them in lemon juice and letting them shrivel up for two weeks. Then it’s time to dress them up with outfits made with fleece, felt, fur, feathers and beads. These particular apple-dolls were made to represent either Native Americans or Pilgrims, and even little bonnets were made. “The kids love it. Even the boys. I let them sew on my sewing machine.”
Erin, a mother of three, likes to come in and help with reading and writing. She says that “it’s very fulfilling to volunteer. The children feel very valued.” She says her own children are very proud to have her there and that it’s very important to them. She interlaced her fingers and explained that that she believes that volunteering really helps mesh the community and the school together.
Pamela laughed about a time when she was talking with her family about going back to work, and her daughter’s reaction was “can you not? I want you to keep coming into school.”
Monika shared a sweet story about a time when she was volunteering in the library and a little boy came to check out a book. Unfortunately, he already had three books out and that was the limit. He explained that he had just brought the books back, but had put them on the wrong shelf. Monika told the boy that next time he should bring the books right to her because she needed to let the computer know that the books have been returned. The boy leaned right up to the computer and said loudly “Computer, I brought my books back!” All the moms agreed that the kids make them laugh all the time.
I asked how parents who are not volunteers can be more involved. The ladies agreed that by asking their kids specific questions, parents will find out more about what’s really happening in school, rather than a shrugged off “my day was fine.” Questions about whom they sat next to at lunch, or what the worst thing was that day, or asking about the curriculum. Teachers are also a good source of information, and they seem to really encourage communication via phone or email. The moms agreed that email is great. Melanie added that “knowledge is power. You have to be involved.”
I was left with a sense that these women experience fulfillment and joy on a regular basis coming into the school. Not to say that it isn’t draining at times. Sometimes the work that they do is more of the brunt work, which allows the teachers the ability to focus on the children and the curriculum. Sometimes the kids test the limits, and the moms need to establish boundaries.
The work these ladies do is not often broadcasted into the community, and it feels good to acknowledge them and show some appreciation and thanks. They are the glue that keeps the school solid. I also could not have conducted this interview were it not for the brilliant organizational skills of Center School’s front desk woman, Laurie. (I’m leaving off her last name because she did not want to give it to me, saying she didn’t need recognition, but I think she does.)
All in all, it was a lovely and informative morning and I’m happy to have learned as much as I did about the role these women play in Center School. We are fortunate to have them looking out for our kids!
By Sarah Taylor