Pine River volunteers offer school support

LEROY — Tying lures with television fishing show host Mark Romanack in Tustin Elementary’s library, fifth-grader Rees Beagle was soaking up the experience. “It’s not every day you get to see a world-class fisherman,” said the young outdoorsman. For Rees, it’s every week. Separated by about 40 years but united by a love of the outdoors, Rees and Romanack meet one-on-one every Wednesday as a part of “Brighten Up Tustin,” a mentoring program that matches students in need of extra attention with a mentor who shares similar interests. “I originally thought this was going to be about Rees and it turns out it makes me feel really good too,” Romanack said. “We have a lot in common and it’s been a really easy relationship to develop. Hopefully it helps Rees develop similar friendships with other people.” The Tustin Elementary program serves as one of many ways that nearly 30 adults give their time to help students and teachers at Pine River’s three elementary schools. With state funding cuts forcing schools to creatively shrink their budgets, Pine River School District Superintendent Jim Ganger said volunteer support is valued more than ever. “The commitment that these adults are making to help kids is amazing,” Ganger said. “These volunteers really make a difference for our students.” Along with volunteers in each elementary building, as many as 15 volunteers help out at each home high school or middle school athletic event, countless parents are involved in parent groups and others volunteer for events throughout the school year. “Whether it’s retired personell or community members, most schools rely on quality volunteers,” Ganger said. “We’re pretty fortunate. They do a great thing.”  
Brightening up Tustin Elementary In its second year, Brighten Up Tustin provides mentors for 10 students in third through fifth grade. The program is faith-based and aims to help students grow and overcome challenges with the love of Jesus Christ. “We call ourselves Brighten up Tustin because of the scripture in the Bible that says we are to be a light in the world,” said Dorice Koetje, founder of the program. “My goal was that it would be an encouragement to the kids and the teachers. They’re asked to do more and more with less and less.” Having gathered ideas from a similar Cadillac-based program, Koetje, who is a parent of students in the district, approached Principal Alan Thomas about starting the program at the school last year. “She had some really good ideas and I knew it would benefit the students, especially the ones who need help with social skills,” Thomas said. He sent out letters to parents of students he thought would benefit from the program, informing them of the program’s goals and its faith-based nature. The program was approved by those parents who wanted their students to participate. “I wanted him to send a letter home to let them know that we are Christians and we are good, morally sound people wanting to help kids and love them as Christ would love them,” Koetje said. Ten students were selected and paired with a mentor, whom they meet with once a week. Mentors range from college students to grandparents and have all undergone background checks. Many are members of the First Baptist Church in Tustin. “We have some really outdoorsy mentors, some really athletic adults, and then we have a gentlemen who is really interested in automotives,” Koetje said. “We’re always looking for more mentors.” During the time spent with students, mentors and mentees read books, do puzzles or make crafts while engaging in conversation. “Sometimes we play games. Sometimes we read,” said volunteer Mari Romanack, who is paired with a fifth-grade student named Olivia. “She’ll read to me and we’ll take turns back and forth. The goal is to just have conversation. She tells me what she did during the week and we work on the polite way to say things to people.” Mark Romanak, who hosts Fishing 411 on the World Fishing Network, said making lures to stock each of their tackle boxes for spring fishing is a fun activity to do with Rees. “We make some for my tackle box and we make some for his tackle box. It works out pretty good,” Romanack said. Thomas said the program has had a tremendous impact on students. “Kids have more self confidence. They communicate better. They tend to get along with their peers a little bit better. They just appear to be happier,” Thomas said. “They are so excited on the days that their mentors come. They love their mentors.” If parents approve, some mentors stay in touch with their mentees after they leave the school and go to middle school. Some also give their mentees Christmas and birthday presents. “On the second day of meeting up with (Mark) he gave me the Hunter’s Bible,” Rees said. “It shows how to properly scout American big game such as white tail deer, or any kind of North American big game animal you can think of.” “It takes a community to raise a student,” he said. “To know that people out there care about their future — aside from their parents and aside from their teachers — makes a big impact on the student.”   Lending a helping hand at LeRoy Elementary  From laminating special paper for teachers to hosting writing workshops, eight volunteers offer their time on a regular basis to help LeRoy Eementary’s teachers and 266 students in preschool through second grade. Some volunteers are retired teachers, while others are college students home on vacation, school board members or community members looking for a way to give back to the school. Principal Kelly Buckmaster said volunteers help alleviate the burden on teachers to make sure students are receiving the help necessary to succeed. “Teachers are really worried about meeting the common core and all the standards right now, so some volunteers will take a group of kids and do something like make ornaments or do a writing project,” Buckmaster said “They can help teachers give that one-on-one time so two students can have individual help instead of just one.” Volunteers also offer a fresh perspective for students. “Students are just excited to see a different face,” Buckmaster said. “I have a student who really looks forward to Mr. Fuller coming. If he has a good day, he gets to play catch with him at lunchtime. It’s just little things like that.” Gary Fuller, retired Wexford County director of public works, volunteers at least two days a week to help at the school where his wife works as a teacher. Fuller has volunteered his time at the school for around 10 years. He completes all the laminating and cutting of materials for teachers and serves as the school librarian on Wednesdays. He also assembles dishes and sets up for the monthly teacher potlucks. “I think the teachers can use every bit of help they can get,” Fuller said. “They are overworked. I put myself in their shoes and think about what it would be like to be locked in a room with 25 7-year-olds all day long. It takes a special kind of person. Anything I can do to make their day easier, I’ll do it. Even if it’s as simple as brushing the snow off their car.” Buckmaster said Fuller’s help is appreciated by staff. “He also takes very good care of staff on luncheon day. I always thank him for taking such good care of us,” she said. Along with more seasoned volunteers, Kaitlyn Ware, a Pine River graduate now majoring in music education at Adrian College, spent part of her winter break volunteering at LeRoy Elementary. “I’ve been helping them with their craft projects, reading and math,” Ware said. “I feel like I’m at an age that is fairly influential on children. They think I’m cool because I’m in college and it’s just so nice to help out. They’re always so happy and fun to be around.” Kim Loomis, a volunteer in the kindergarten classroom, agreed that being with young students is an exciting time. She volunteers her time four days each week for an hour and a half. Loomis and her husband recently moved to the area after her husband accepted a position as the pastor of a local church. “We just moved here and I don’t have a job so I’m just volunteering,” Loomis said. “I kind of take the load off of the teacher so she can do other things.”   One-on-one time at Luther Elementary Every day of the week, at least one volunteer can be spotted helping teachers and 100 students in preschool through fifth grade at Luther Elementary. Six community members contribute 28 hours each week to help students read, study for tests and succeed in learning from their teacher. “They are in our classrooms working with core curriculum,” said Dawn Vanderhoof, lead teacher at Luther Elementary. “They all have a scheduled time that they come in. Some will come all day for a day. One gentlemen comes three mornings a week.” Along with helping students who are struggling academically, one volunteer also offers special attention for those who are excelling. “One lady comes in and does higher-level reading and thinking activities with some students,” Vanderhoof said. “They’re not just here to help our struggling students, they help our higher-level ones too.” With a close-knit small community, many of the volunteers are related to students and others are considered part of the school family. “They are just like part of us,” Vanderhoof said. “It’s just another adult one-on-one with kids who otherwise wouldn’t get that help. Our volunteers are a huge part of our students growth, keeping them from struggling.”