BEVERLY — Nancy Recchia's first-grade art class at Alice L. Barnard Elementary School in Beverly was a flurry of activity just ahead of Valentine's Day.
For Recchia alone, the class of more than 30 students would have been difficult to manage. Some children struggled with stuck bottles of glue. Others crudely managed safety scissors, and still others feverishly looked for fresh markers. But Recchia, a Pullman resident, wasn't alone.
Three volunteers were on hand to help the students design their love letters — mostly composed to parents and family members. Sherri Miles, Linda Rutledge and Bobbie Stamps were all working with the excited group just ahead of the holiday.
"I am learning a lot from these children," said Rutledge, a retired home healthcare provider from West Englewood. Her granddaughter, Trinity, lives in Beverly and is in second grade at Barnard.
The three women are all part of a new Parents as Mentors program launched last month at the school at 10354 S. Charles St. said Meg Burns, Barnard's assistant principal.
"Our new parents are coming in and asking, 'What can we do? What can we do?'" said Burns, a Beverly resident.
Prior to this year, the answer to such a question wasn't exactly concrete. But now with the help of the Beverly Area Planning Association, a program for volunteering has been put in place. It provided training last month, then placed volunteers in the classroom alongside teachers who requested their help.
Burns and Principal Patrick MacMahon joined the school three years ago and immediately made improving community involvement a priority. Other gains — such as bringing Barnard's enrollment to 311 students and advancing to a high CPS academic ranking — were achieved but finding volunteers proved more difficult, Burns said.
Margot Burke Holland, executive director of the planning association, caught wind of these struggles around the same time she began to investigate the success of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.
The North Side community group services an area with a considerable Hispanic population and designed a program to bring parents — many who struggle to speak English — into the school as helpers, Holland said.
These parents volunteer in the classroom for about two hours each day Mondays-Thursdays. On Fridays, they receive free language courses and job training through the school program. Those who complete 100 hours of combined volunteering and coursework receive a $500 stipend, she said.
Holland sought to adapt the program to work in Beverly. Instead of English classes, volunteers could select their own outside courses of study, such as healthy eating or home-buying seminars. The classroom component and stipend remain the same.
The Chicago Community Trust agreed to fund the program in Beverly to the tune of $20,000 in December. And the Southwest Organizing Project, which works with the parent volunteers in Logan Square, was tapped to provide the training in January.
"I think this is just a very structured volunteer program, designed to get people through the door," Holland said.
So far, it seems to be working. Holland hopes to find a way to keep the funding going and even expand the program to other 19th Ward schools, including Clissold Elementary School and Esmond Elementary School both in Morgan Park.
Sherri Miles, of Roseland, is the volunteer coordinator at Barnard. Her 9-year-old daughter, Kennedy, is in third grade at Barnard.
"I think the program is beneficial for the students in that it helps students get things done that they otherwise wouldn't," Miles said.
One of the helping hands who work with students to get things done is Bobbie Stamps. Her 5-year-old granddaughter, Alyssa Pettis, attends Barnard.
Stamps said this is her first year volunteering. She raved about the flexibility of the program at Barnard, as she helps out four mornings at per week rather than the everyday commitment that was first proposed.
"Some of the children you make very happy," she said.
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