Year-round volunteers shine at Central Oregon schools

Volunteering, not just for the holidays

By Peter Madsen, The Bulletin, @OutdoorsyInBend

Additional info

For more information about volunteering opportunities, please contact:

• Redmond Early Learning Center, 541-923-8900

• Mountain View High School, 541-355-4400

• Sisters High School, 541-549-4045

Volunteering, particularly in Deschutes County, isn’t a phenomenon relegated to the holidays, it’s an everyday occurrence. In the spirit of the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” The Bulletin wanted to showcase some of the selfless work volunteers put forth in Deschutes County school districts every day of the year.

Volunteers were quick to point out they are some of many who keep the gears churning at their respective schools. But to recognize their outsize devotion, school administrators highlighted the efforts of select volunteers at school in Redmond, Sisters and Bend.

A grand-paternal presence

When Ralph Dow, 77, walks down the halls of the Redmond Early Learning Center, where he is known as “Grandpa Ralph,” it’s not uncommon that children will rush to give him a hug.

“It didn’t take long to see he has a gift for forming relationships with kids in a real calm, steady, grandpa sort of way,” said Desiree Margo, the principal. “He’s the magic bullet, an angel in disguise.”

Dow mentors 11 kindergarteners in 20-minute one-on-one sessions, four days a week. Many children he sees come from troubled homes where they do not receive support necessary to be fully engaged, ready-to-learn students, he said. Dow works to show kids that they’re worthwhile and that he and others care about them.

“You can’t open their brain until you open their spirit,” he said.

Previously, Dow volunteered for five years at M.A. Lynch Elementary School, where Margo served as principal. When she opened the Redmond Early Learning Center last year, she asked Dow to transfer his volunteering efforts. There, Dow appropriated a mentoring program called Check & Connect and tailored it to early learners. He meets with the same children four days a week. He limits his lunch break to 20 minutes to accommodate everyone.

Dow has also mentored three children through Central Oregon Partnerships for Youth, a program created by the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office for the children of incarcerated parents. He spends a couple hours once a week with a fifth-grader through the Big Brother Big Sister of Central Oregon.

As Dow began educating himself on child development, he learned that kids exposed to trauma account for 85 percent of behavioral problems at school.

“Kids who come to school who are affected by trauma or poverty — their brain is just blocked as far as learning goes. They need to feel special to someone — it’s a basic human need. And when that happens, gradually, their brain starts opening and they start blossoming.”

Dow encourages senior citizens to get involved with local schools.

“They don’t know that the need is so great for them. Especially grandpas,” Dow said, adding that kids crave the attention of a caring older figure, particularly when they don’t have a stable figure in their lives. Margo said the Redmond Early Learning Center is seeking additional volunteers, particularly one who can become a Check & Connect mentor, alongside Dow.

“We joke that we wish we could clone him,” Margo said.

Dow said the work is constant source of satisfaction.

“What I’m doing is so much more than tutoring in reading or writing or math,” he said. “I’m basically a grandpa to the whole school.”

Community cohesion

One of the school’s most active parent-volunteers, Sarah Swaney contributes as much as 25 hours per week despite her youngest of three daughters graduating nearly three years ago.

“I’d like our community to be a really positive place,” Swaney said of her volunteering motives. “If we can get kids moving on and feeling like they have a plan, or feeling positive about themselves, then I would like to contribute to that.”

Volunteering at Bend-La Pine schools is something she’s done since her daughters were students at Buckingham Elementary. At Mountain View, she helps with the nordic ski team, the ASPIRE program and Cougar Kick-Off Days, a student preparation event.

“My kids got so much out of the (nordic ski) program, I hope other kids can get the same — just friendly, positive life lessons,” she said.

She became involved with the nordic team almost by accident in 2005 when she signed up her oldest daughter, then a freshman, for the team. When Swaney let it slip that she is a retired accountant, someone asked her if she would like to handle the treasury. She obliged, additionally relieving nordic coach Eric Martin of administrative duties. Swaney is also a fixture at practices, where she — previously an alpine skier — learned how to nordic ski.

“It’s a lot of fun to be involved because our team has a lot of really nice young people who are very appreciative of what we do,” she said. “They all want to pitch in. Eric (Martin) gives them a sense of ownership of their team.”

In 2006, Swaney additionally involved herself with ASPIRE, a mentor program that advises juniors and seniors about their post-graduation plans. She said the monthly sessions with students remind her of the talks she had with her own daughters as they made plans for college. This year, she meets 20 students — down from the 30 she counseled last year. Her devotion does not go unnoticed.

“Sarah cares about the students at our school and has made a tremendous impact on hundreds of lives through her volunteer efforts,” Lindsey Corley, Mountain View High School office manager, wrote in an email. “We love Sarah and are going to try and keep her around as long as we can.”

Open hearts

At Sisters High School, two volunteers, both retirees, have had an outsize impact on students, officials said.

Phyllis Smith, 77, and Diane Russell, 68, both with backgrounds in education, also offer juniors and seniors guidance through the ASPIRE program. They are two of about 40 ASPIRE volunteers at Sisters High School who meet with students once a month.

“I really enjoy working with the youth. They are so respectful and interested in learning,” Smith said. “There is so much satisfaction that I derive … in implementing a future for them in some ways — or at least in giving them a view of what they can accomplish,” said Smith, who began volunteering shortly after she and her husband moved from Portland to Sisters 11 years ago.

“I wanted the challenge,” she said.

Smith helped one student land an au pair position in London, where she continued her education and now works at a financial firm. Another student came to his session holding a ball of dough he brought from culinary class. He wanted to be a chef in a “foreign country” some day, and he was interested in culinary school. With Smith’s guidance, the student decided to study engineering near family in Nevada.

“What’s fun is to see them dream, and then maybe change their dreams. But then their dreams become a reality when they hit their goals,” she said.

Smith is in touch with a couple former students, but “The idea is to let them fly and fly away,” she said.

Russell volunteered up until a week before she underwent open-heart surgery late last year.

“It was quite an ordeal, but I’m back!” she said with a laugh. After two months of recuperation during which she communicated with her students via text, she will resume her ASPIRE position this month.

Rick Kroytz, the ASPIRE director at Sisters High School, said Smith and Russell were instrumental in helping him assume the program’s helm a year and a half ago.

“They’re really involved,” he said. “They have great heart.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, pmadsen@bendbulletin.com

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