Patrea Womack
South Side Elementary, Harrisburg, Pa.

Patrea Womack knows all about the challenges that come with being an adoptive or foster parent—she’s one herself. In January 2009, she established a group for families at South Side Elementary in Harrisburg, Pa. Since then, dozens more parents and guardians have had an easier time getting connected to the school.

“Adoptive parents will go through things and have fears and concerns that natural parents will never go through or experience,” says Womack, whose four adopted children range in age from 6 to 13 years old. As the group’s facilitator, Womack ensures that the school’s “nonnuclear families” can freely discuss and address those very issues together.

The group began after Womack wrote a letter to all parents and guardians advertising a new support group and open forum on adoptive and foster parenting issues. Only a few parents attended the inaugural meeting. “But then word circulated that we were meeting, and more and more people became interested and willing to share their experiences with others even outside of meetings,” she says. “As a result, some parents and families have expressed interest in becoming foster [or] adoptive parents and seek us out for more information.”

The support group’s structure has since become less formal; instead of monthly meetings, members now are more apt to congregate during school events or the PTA’s chili cook-off. Womack is usually in the middle of the crowd, leading the discussion and answering questions about adoption paperwork or agency protocol.

Families also use the network that Womack established at South Side to talk about important developments and special milestones in their lives. Just recently, one family shared plans to adopt its five foster children. “The mom sent out an email announcing the news,” Womack says. Of course, the support group at South Side has been a godsend to Womack, too. “It helped me to realize that my husband and I are not alone and that the struggles that we have faced are also faced by others in similar situations,” she says. “It gives me a chance to share joys and triumphs.”

Chuck Gamble
Jim Falls (Wis.) Elementary

Just about everywhere that 10-year-old Sophia Gamble and her 8-year-old sister, Grace, look at Jim Falls Elementary, there’s some imprint of their dad’s creativity. Chuck Gamble, a professional animator, illustrator, and cartoonist, has designed everything from posters and flyers to the boy and girl eagle mascots featured on the school’s spiritwear. Oh, and the 15-foot totem pole and 8-foot volcano that erupts during the PTO’s annual Hawaiian Family Fun Night? Those would be his creations, too.

“I have a slight tiki/Polynesian obsession,” Gamble explains, “so I thought that could make for a fun party idea and, since the family fun night happens at the end of the school year, a good sendoff into summer.” Gamble has chaired the event for four years. Originally, he says, he intended to have a new theme each year, but the tiki concept became so popular it’s now a tradition. “It all started with a big cardboard volcano, and I’ve added more big cardboard stuff every year...sharks, monkeys, tiki totem poles,” he notes. “I love seeing the joy and excitement [the students] get from the fun and silliness I add to the events.”

Gamble, who served as president of the PTO in 2008, has enjoyed volunteering in other ways, too. In April 2010, he chaperoned his daughter’s 4th grade class on a local field trip outing called “the Past Passed Here”; students learned about and experienced life in Chippewa Falls during the 1700s through early 1900s. And the year before, Gamble delighted students in daughter Sophia’s art class with a lesson on stop-motion animation.

“I’m very fortunate to be able to spend time with my girls, and they love that ‘Poppy’ does all that fun stuff!” Gamble says about his involvement at Jim Falls Elementary. “It’s a nice way to help all the kids stay connected to school and hopefully enhance the entire learning experience.”

Dave Braun
Oakdale Elementary, Cincinnati

Every morning—rain, snow, or shine—Dave Braun is pulling out all the stops outside Oakdale Elementary to keep everyone safe. Braun volunteers as the school’s crossing guard; he monitors and controls the flow of students and cars passing through the drop-off zone. And perhaps no one is more appreciative of that help than the school’s principal, Sam Gibbs. “He is fantastic,” says Gibbs, who describes Braun as a fixture and “faithful as ever.”

Braun’s crossing guard duties began when his 14-year-old son, Matthew, was in 1st grade. At the time, Braun noticed that there was no one controlling the morning bustle of cars and that students would walk aimlessly across the school’s driveway. “I just stood there and started to tell cars to stop,” he says. The position evolved into a permanent assignment; Braun has stayed on since then even though his son no longer attends Oakdale.

Braun’s volunteer shift begins about 7:45 a.m., right after he drops off Matthew at the middle school. “I set out the cones, go to my post, and stay there until the last bell rings,” he explains. He heads home around 9 a.m., once all the “stragglers” have arrived. Later in the day, Braun switches gears and heads to work as a truck mechanic, working about 50 hours a week on the second shift.

“He’s polite and says ‘good morning’ and ‘have a nice day’ to each child, with a smile on his face,” says former Oakdale PTA president Lorie Schaefer. “The kids just adore him and ask where he is if he misses any day.” In 2007, PTA leaders surprised Braun with a Friends of Children award for his dedication and service to Oakdale’s students. Braun was happy to receive the award but downplays his contributions. “It’s just one job—one task,” he says.

Braun says getting to know the students as individuals makes volunteering each morning worthwhile. “I get to see their school projects, talk about NASCAR and sports teams,” he says. He often receives notes, flowers, and sweets as thanks; his favorite token is a Pokémon picture drawn by a little girl at Oakdale. “It’s been taped to my door,” he says.

Amy McKenzie
Blessed Sacrament Catholic School, Sandy, Utah

The request to volunteer at school can come from a teacher’s email, a school flyer, or a phone call from the classroom parent. For busy mom Amy McKenzie, the call for help at Blessed Sacrament Catholic School came from the personal welcome she received from Janet Kinneberg, president of the Home and School Association at that time.

McKenzie’s family had transferred mid-year; Kinneberg introduced herself during the first week of school. “She invited me to attend an HSA meeting and stated that they were looking for some help if I had any interest or time in giving it,” McKenzie recalls. The tech-savvy McKenzie, who had acquired knowledge about website tools while working on training sessions for her clients, was happy to oblige. “I shared my skill sets with her, and a new position and website was born.”

Since then, McKenzie has served in a number of volunteer positions at school, including webmaster and strategic planning committee member. She also assists with the school’s Halloween festival, field day, Teacher Appreciation Week festivities, and lunchroom and playground duties.

One of the biggest reasons McKenzie volunteers at school, she says, is because it shows her sons that they come first. “The school has my kids for eight hours a day, and I want to know what is being taught to them, that they are safe, and they know that I believe being there is the right place for them,” she explains. Outside of school, McKenzie also serves as den leader of her sons’ Cub Scouts group.

Admittedly, though, juggling a 45-hour work week along with volunteering at school and in her community while raising two active sons comes with challenges. “It is an effort,” she says, “but it is so worth every ounce of inconvenience it might cause in my meeting schedule.” McKenzie will occasionally even forgo her lunch hour at work to accommodate afternoon classroom activities and events, such as the 4th grade’s recent county fair open house: “Sure, I don’t get to eat, but I do get to see how proud my son is of his work.”