“People see middle school as hands off,” says parent volunteer Christin Neels.
Thankfully, Neels and volunteers like Humberto Zuniga and Kim Wells have a different mindset about lending a helping hand in middle schools.
Soon after her family’s military relocation to Virginia Beach, Neels attended the division’s State of the Schools event where Dr. James Merrill, superintendent at the time, spoke about decreased funding and increasing mandates for public schools. Four years later, Neels still remembers how the event prompted her search for ways to support her two daughters’ elementary school.
“When I listened to Dr. Merrill talk about that $40 million budget shortfall and he listed all that schools and teachers are expected to do here in Virginia – well, basically you are raising the kids for us,” said Neels. “And it was a jaw dropper; it really was. So if I was leaving my children at their front door, I figured I would try to do whatever I could to take a load off schools. I thought, ‘How can I help?’”
Neels started by assisting the guidance counselor at her daughters’ elementary school. “I saw how busy she was,” said Neels, “so any time she needed an extra pair of hands, especially whenever they needed a hand with display cases or bulletin boards, I was happy to help.”
When one of her daughters transitioned to middle school three years ago, Neels found ways to volunteer her time at the secondary level. “She has such a creative spark,” said Kempsville Middle School principal Patti Jenkins. “She uses her creative talent to decorate for dances, make posters, advertise fundraisers and ramp up student enthusiasm.”
Jenkins is especially grateful for Neels’ efforts to spotlight Kempsville’s emphasis on literacy and reading. It was Neels’ idea to track progress in the school’s Race to Read campaign with handmade displays for students, staff and parents that she updates regularly. Neels was also instrumental in bringing more attention to a fundraiser that helped establish an interdisciplinary STEM-based library for the school’s eighth-grade English and science teams.
“Volunteering doesn’t have to be sitting in a classroom,” said Neels when asked about encouraging others to volunteer. “There is no job that is too small. If it makes a teacher’s job easier, just raise your hand.”
Humberto Zuniga raised his hand to help at his son’s new school, Bayside Sixth Grade Campus. Similar to Neels, Zuniga volunteered at his son’s elementary school and wanted to continue his support at the middle school level. When he attended Bayside’s open house event, the retired U.S. Navy critical care registered nurse asked how he could be of service.
Since that outreach, Zuniga has been a weekly volunteer in Maureen Stolte’s independent reading class.
“Mr. Z models fluent reading, provides opportunities for students to read aloud and supports students as they work on skill-building activities,” Stolte said. “He plays a key role in reaching struggling readers who have faced years of frustration…With his caring and dedicated assistance, the students see the value of reading and have the undivided attention of a volunteer who is supportive and encouraging.”
“The teachers don’t have enough time,” said Zuniga of his volunteer service. “They can’t always spend quality time with each student.”
Zuniga noted that building trust with Stolte’s students was an important first step. Now, “they know I am there to help them, and it is a good feeling to see how the students have grown,” he said.
Growing out of middle school is Kim Wells’ daughter who will join her brother in high school next year. “But I’m going to stay here,” said Princess Anne Middle School (PAMS) volunteer Wells.
“I love this school,” Wells explained on her way to the gymnasium concession stand. “Everybody here is so wonderful – the custodial staff, administration, teachers, the kids. This place makes me happy, and they are so appreciative of their volunteers. So, I’m staying.”
Also appreciative of Wells’ service are PAMS event attendees because she works tirelessly to ensure that refreshments are available at all athletic contests and special events.
“Mrs. Wells has become a fixture at any event where concessions are sold,” said PAMS principal Alex Bergren. “Her commitment, hard work and efficiency have helped the PTA raise thousands of dollars which have been spent to support instructional and extracurricular programs, as well as fund a teacher grant program the PAMS PTA developed to support innovative instructional practices.”
PAMS sixth-grade teacher James Arnett joins Bergren in praising Wells who also devotes time each week to make photocopies for the sixth-grade math team. “Mrs. Wells makes a sincere effort and succeeds at taking things off our plates,” Arnett said, “and her daughter is not even in any of our classes.”
“I’m glad I can do it because they can focus on their teaching,” said Wells, echoing the sentiments of fellow middle school volunteers Zuniga and Neels.
Wells noted she was not always as involved in her children’s schools as she would have liked, but she is glad to be able to make the commitment now.
“It shows my kids the importance of participating in the larger community,” Wells reflected. “Interacting with other parents, teachers and administrators on a regular basis, you get an understanding of your child’s daily activities, and you learn the trends of school life that can help you communicate with your children,” she added. “It is never too late to start volunteering.”
To find ways you can get involved, visit the division’s Get Connected page at vbschools.com/getconnected and find volunteer opportunities available in VBCPS schools. For more information about the Volunteers in Education program as a whole, visit the page to learn more about the service of VBCPS volunteers.