Thanks to the readers who told us how your schools recruit volunteers who work outside the home. Some of you described the creative ways you find to volunteer and the efforts teachers and other parents make to involve you. Others say schools and parent organizations still have a lot to learn to make full use of your time and talents.

Ideas that worked

Work with your parent group to get organized:

Mom Lynn Payne says her school divided jobs into three categories: “This year for the volunteer sign-up sheets we color-coded them:

  • White: Volunteer work during school hours
  • Yellow: Volunteer work after school, at home, nights, weekends
  • Red: donate food or water for an event (for those really busy parents)

This worked wonderfully and the working parents really appreciated having jobs that they can do during non-school hours. It also helped the person running the event because they knew ahead of time when volunteers were available.”

See if your employer will approve paid time off for volunteer work:

Jacki, an Ohio mother of a child with special needs, writes: “I am fortunate to have a great boss who allows me community service credit hours for time I spend helping with field trips, class projects, etc. Many companies, these days, encourage community service from staff. If not, suggest it.”

Work with your employer to get more flexible work hours:

This won’t work for everyone, but one Missouri mom of five sons reports that she’s been successful: “I have a day of the week that’s a late day, and on the morning of that day I go to both schools and give assistance where needed.” This mom is lucky enough to have an employer who understands the importance of school involvement. On days when there are school programs during work hours, “I am allowed to take an extended lunch or leave early to attend those events. I will video, take pictures, set up or anything I can do to help. Most of my vacation time is used to go on field trips and go to different functions at my sons’ schools.”

Volunteer at special events:

Jane, an Iowa mom of two, says both she and her husband have jobs and volunteer at school. Her suggestion: “Either choose events that don’t coincide with work (such as Family Fun Nights or other fundraisers) or events that occur on a more individual basis such as holiday class parties or field trips. Because those things are usually scheduled well ahead of time, we can make arrangements to take time off work to be there. Overall we do what we can, and we don’t beat ourselves up when we can’t volunteer as much as we’d like. And when a neighborhood mom mentions how she volunteers every Thursday afternoon at school reading with the kids, we just remind ourselves that we do our best to balance both work and school, knowing that it’s a tough task many people just like us willingly tackle every day.”

Share a job:

California mom Wendy McIlveen suggests: “I just thought I would share with you what I volunteer for on a yearly basis at the elementary school my son goes to. In the beginning of every school year, teachers always post what they need parents to volunteer for the class. Well since I work full time and also have two older children (middle school and now college), I always volunteer to be the room mom, on the condition that I share that duty with another mom. It really is great. I get to be involved in all the fun stuff, like planning parties etc. The best part is I can do it in the evening or use my lunchtime to send emails to other parents. Not to mention, my son loves saying his mom is the room mom. He does wish I could come in and work in the classroom, but I just explain the situation to him, and he’s OK.”

Getting involved may mean extra time for your child:

California mom Tanya Newsom says: “I am a working parent volunteer. My daughter struggles to get her classwork done, so I take my lunch hour and go into her classroom three days a week to help her catch up. She just needs a little more one-on-one, and with a class of 20 students the teacher can not really provide a lot of one-on-one. I feel this helps all of us. Once she starts working independently I will help out in other areas.”

What working parents need

Many of you had advice for parent groups and schools to help you get involved.

Get better at using parents’ work skills to fill school needs:

  • We can help with marketing, grant writing: Christine McLaughlin of New Jersey writes: “I am a proud mother of a wonderful second grader. I have volunteered in my son’s classroom since kindergarten, and I work 40 hours a week. I volunteer during my lunch hour one or two times a week. His teachers have always worked with my schedule and they appreciate any help they can get. … I volunteer with my son’s school’s marketing campaign, the Web page, grant proposals and fundraising. My work skills lend themselves to these activities…”
  • Many of us have computer skills: Texas mom Georgia Wren-McConn says: “I’m a working parent/volunteer who is fortunate enough to have a lot of flexibility in my job, but I can certainly relate to the time constraints and work/family life balance. Some ideas for those who would like to help but don’t have flexibility during the day could include computer work, emails, organizing committees, accounting for funds — anything that can be done via email can usually be done ANY time of the day or night and could give those parents who want to participate an opportunity to do so. Good luck!”
  • We can organize via email: Another parent concurs: “I always want to volunteer at my son’s school but can’t miss work to do so. I’ve always been very honest with teachers that if they’ll allow me to have a project to do for them that I can do at work or at home and then return it to them very quickly, I could participate and gladly. I am fortunate to have an office job that allows me the luxury of working on lots of different projects, stopping and starting and prioritizing them as I go along. This allows me to work in a quick school project in between. Since I’m in front of a computer throughout most of the day, utilizing email to organize events with other volunteers and the teacher really helps. There are times that a volunteer project just can’t be done in my office, and in those cases if given enough time I can work on it at home after dinner and during homework time. With all the after-school activities, the more notice the better on volunteer projects so that I can plan for those nights when timing is very tight. We’re fortunate to have a great teacher this year who is a good communicator, that is the best.”

Think creatively about jobs that parents can do at home:

A California mom says: “I’ll be happy to stuff envelopes for the school — if they can give me a box to take home and do tonight vs. showing up at the office at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday.”

Develop classroom volunteer slots for parents who can’t come very week:

One mom writes: “Last year when my son was in first grade in Santee, CA, I filled out the teacher’s volunteer form saying that my schedule varied, but I would love to come in whenever I was available and could let the teacher know a day or two in advance. My son’s teacher wanted a set schedule, but it turned out that she had openings and I was able to volunteer weekly at various times, and I loved the experience. This year my son’s second grade teacher sent home the same type of volunteer form asking for a set weekly schedule. Unfortunately we haven’t heard back from the teacher if I would be able to come in on one of her open slots. My son was very disappointed when his teacher didn’t call off my name as a volunteer, so I explained to him that since my work hours vary, and his teacher wanted the same parents in there weekly, that I would come visit him for lunch. As a working mom, I would love an opportunity to be able to volunteer. I feel it would be great if all teachers had a few open volunteer days monthly for the working parents to come in.”

Hold meetings when working parents can attend:

This may seem obvious, but many of you say their schools don’t do this. An Indiana mom writes to say that she’s been an active preschool volunteer, but the situation changed when her son started kindergarten. “The HSA (Home School Association), similar to the PTO, thus far does not appear to be accommodating to the working parent,” she says. “They actually hold their monthly meetings for all parents, volunteers, etc., on a Wednesday at 3:00 in the afternoon. There is apparently no alternate or rotating times or days to accommodate working parents. I don’t know how a parent is supposed to volunteer or find out what is happening within that organization if you are working and unable to attend their meetings. They had many sign-up sheets at registration for parents to sign up to volunteer for all the events for the whole school year. And occasionally they add something to the school newsletter. I have the president’s email address and she is accessible by email. I contacted her before school began in August and told her I would like to be involved and I would like to attend the meetings, but I work on Wednesdays until 7:30 p.m. I was never accommodated in any other way. I find it hard to believe that the majority of the parents, particularly working parents of our elementary school, are available on Wednesdays at 3:00 p.m. I felt like I was shut out before we even started the school year!”

“I have found that having meetings in the early evening attracts the most working parent volunteers to plan events for the children,” writes Judie, a single mom of a 4-year-old in New York. “Once involved, most working parents are happy to take an hour or two out of their work days to participate in special events.”

Get creative:

Jackie Edmonds Clark says: “One of the things I always do as a working parent is send money for events. I may not be able to be there in the flesh, but sharing the expenses seems to be appreciated. Give all parents several options from which to choose: send staples (cups, paper plates, etc), donate freebies or promotional items from their place of business, do set-up work, do at-the-event work, do after-event clean-up. There are so many ways to help. Be creative! For example, if you must have more hands present, tell parents to be responsible to provide a warm body; the parent can then recruit an uncle, grandparent or neighbor to be the warm body.”

Recognize that volunteering is a social opportunity for parents and make the most of it:

Teresa Williams, a mother of three from Maryland, suggests: “I am 37 and have noticed that a lot of my children’s friends’ parents have been a bit older then myself. I think that offering the parents a parent room or center at the school is a good idea, a room just for the parents to come and socialize, revitalize, get and provide ideas, fund-raisers and maybe some learning programs for the parents can be a good way to keep in contact. Another thing that I have found to be very useful when trying to employ the services of working parents is sending home an assignment for the parents to complete, asking them to list some ideas that are important to them … Also, maybe having an occasional online PTA meeting. That way the parents can just log in to the schools Web site and get all the information they need and they can provide their input.”

Help parents buddy up:

“I would love to get to know other parents in my community that have special children that might also be able to go with me to events with my son. He always acts better and listens when there is another adult with us. I am a single mom and there isn’t a man around.”

The payoff

Many of you wrote to emphasize that as difficult as it is to work volunteer work into your busy schedules, it was well worth it.

It helps you stay in touch:

“I currently run my own business and yes, I work full time,” writes Christy Lyons, a Virginia mom. “As a business owner I know that if I don’t do the work it won’t get done; but I also know that being a volunteer in the school system also comes with its perks. I’m talking about the fact that the teachers and administration get to know your face and realize that you want to be involved in your child’s education and aren’t as hesitant to discuss ANY issue with you concerning your child’s behavior, attitude, socialization … On the other hand because I volunteer in the school I spend many a night working on papers that I have taken home, catching up on reading my career journals, logging in to the computer at the office to do administrative items, and returning emails. No matter that I lose a couple of hours’ sleep here and there, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. My children will be long gone before I know it and I believe it has kept us closer being so accessible and knowing some of the goings on at the school. There are many activities that people can volunteer with; some involve outside work and some involve direct teacher to parent contact. I have made some wonderful friends with other parents and have even (not trying to) picked up new clients through my involvement. Give it a try!”

Your child and community benefit:

Mike Simpson, the father of a 12-year-old in California, offers his advice to other parents: “Join with other parents at school and ask your classroom teachers and principals: ‘What can I do to help?’ Join your PTA/PTO, run for your school site council, attend school functions, talk to other parents, and get involved. Give your time, your money and your support to our schools and our education system, find a way to help. When parents are involved:

  • Children get higher grades and test scores.
  • Children have better attitudes and behavior.
  • Children complete more homework.
  • Children are more likely to complete high school and enroll in post-high school education.
  • You help build your schools, your neighborhoods and your community.

I say to my fellow parents please get involved, we need you and your child does too!”

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