As volunteer organizations, PTOs depend on the kindness of their communities for support. But that support can be—and often is—a two-way street. Many parent groups are doing good deeds beyond their school doors, going out to serve their communities in a variety of ways.

PTO members involved in such projects say that one of the benefits of community service is increased parent participation. Helping the less fortunate can be a tremendous morale boost, and parents are far more likely to support a group they perceive as generous and not completely self-serving. More important, they say that service projects provide an excellent opportunity to teach young children the value of generosity and helping others.

Helping Neighbors in Need

In New Jersey’s Winslow Township School District, the HSA Council rallied local schools in response to a community need. HSA leaders organized a highly successful food drive that provided an excellent learning opportunity for students as well as food to needy local residents.

Approximately 39 percent of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, so HSA parents knew there was a significant degree of poverty in their southern New Jersey community, made worse by the nation’s recent economic downturn.

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In early 2009, HSA Council member Christy Rutt suggested that the group tackle a project to help the entire community, and the idea of a food drive soon emerged from a brainstorming session. Organizers specifically wanted a local project that would help people in their own community.

Council members such as Christy Renzulli, HSA president at School 6, organized the “Yes We Can” food drive. They coordinated their efforts with two local food banks and recruited other organizations, such as the local police, library, and fire departments, to collect food as well.

Eight schools in Winslow Township became drop-off points for canned and nonperishable goods. All the collected food was brought to the high school cafeteria for sorting and distribution to the food banks. Nearly 200 students and parents volunteered to help; a local company donated moving boxes.

“One thing we felt strongly about was that students and parents should be more involved than just dropping off a can at school,” Renzulli says. The project directly tied into the school district’s character education curriculum, which emphasizes responsibility, teamwork, initiative, and effort.

Advance planning was critical in both the collection and distribution stages. “We needed to find out ahead of time what food banks needed and how much they could handle,” Renzulli says. HSA leaders also recruited and coordinated volunteers and found places at each school to store the food before it was brought to the central collection site.

Parent groups considering a similar project should ask local businesses whether they wish to help out with materials, time, or money, Renzulli suggests. She recommends gathering community resources early on in the process rather than relying solely on PTO parents to foot the bill.

The HSA’s townwide food drive collected approximately 400 boxes of food, but most projects start much smaller. When choosing a community service project, keep in mind your own parent group’s resources and limitations. “Keep things simple to start,” Renzulli advises. “If you keep your plan focused and make the steps clear and easy, more people will get involved because they won’t be intimidated or confused.” After all, a successful, sustainable small project is more valuable than an ambitious project that falls flat.

Reaching Across Borders

While Winslow Township found a worthwhile project close to home, parents, teachers, and students from Annunciation Catholic Academy in Altamonte Springs, Fla., became a sister school and a lifeline of hope to a poor, rural school in the Dominican Republic.

Like Annunciation, Los Haitises is a Catholic school. But the similarities end there. Located in a remote mountain region near the border with Haiti, Los Haitises lacks running water, electricity, or even a window for students to see the outdoors. Teachers travel to the school on donkeys through rutted dirt trails.

Annunciation’s principal, Dr. Margaret Curran, visited the Caribbean school and brought back stories and photos of her experiences. Once the students and parents learned about the conditions at Los Haitises, they wanted to help.

“Every time I go down there, I’ll see what they need and our children will collect the items,” Curran says. So far, Annunciation students have donated hundreds of shoes, Spanish-language books, and clothing items. Curran says that when she travels to Los Haitises now, she sees uniforms from her own school on grateful children—uniforms that have been washed, sorted, packed, and shipped by Annunciation parents.

Curran’s photographs and descriptions of stark life in the Dominican Republic proved to be the best sales pitch. When she told her students about how Los Haitises students share a single bicycle, the response was overwhelming. Families donated 65 bicycles to their sister school.

“The children felt that they knew the people we were helping and grew to care deeply about them,” says Cherylann Taramykin, a former member of Annunciation Catholic Academy’s HSA board.

Helping children in another country has done far more than expand the worldview of the Florida students. “By caring for those in need, children develop empathy for others and gratitude for what they have,” Taramykin says. “They develop a valuable and increasingly rare ability to look outside themselves and to think in terms of the bigger picture.”

The Annunciation school community so embraced Los Haitises that it didn’t hesitate when the Florida school announced a goal of raising $20,000 for the construction of a new, more modern school in the Dominican Republic. Students and parents contributed in a variety of ways, from a classroom change drive to a Halloween party. Even the kindergartners joined in by hosting a bake sale. Parents were involved at every step of the process, Curran says.

Perhaps most remarkably, the HSA donated 10 percent of its own fundraising profits to the cause. Curran said her school’s parents didn’t balk at the prospect of sending some of their own  school’s money to help others. “I’ve had parents just come in and give me a check, asking ‘How can I help?’” she recalls. In early 2010, Annunciation reached its goal and Los Haitises was scheduled to begin construction on its new home.

Good Causes and Ideas Abound

The parents of Annunciation Catholic and Winslow Township are remarkable, but they are hardly alone. PTOs across the nation are helping communities both close to home and far away in a variety of creative ways (see “Numbers That Count”, below). If your parent group is thinking of taking on a community service project, keep these things in mind.

Community service doesn’t have to be expensive. No one said community service has to take the form of donations. Students can make valentines for the local senior center. Or parents and students can plant trees at a park or clean up a playground. Nearly every nonprofit agency will have a list of chores that need doing, so contact your local United Way chapter or other agencies directly for ways you can help.

Do your research when picking a partner. Plenty of organizations will gladly take the help (and money) a PTO can provide. But before entering a partnership, do some investigation into the charity. Have any complaints been filed against the organization? How do they spend the money they raise? Reputable charities generally will be glad to provide this information, and often a quick Internet search can turn up any trouble.

Consider the scope. Do you want to have an ongoing effort or a single service project? Obviously, a long-term project requires more commitment—and possibly more time and money on the front end. But sustaining an established project can be easier (and more efficient) than starting a new project from scratch every year. Each PTO has to gauge its own goals, resources, and comfort level when making this decision.


Numbers That Count

Here’s a quick look at how PTO and PTA service projects really add up.

166 personal hygiene kits
Students at three Fordland, Mo., schools collected items for the kits for earthquake relief in Haiti. The Fordland Elementary PTO purchased additional hygiene items and sponsored a coin drive that gathered $1,023.70 in change.

750 inches of hair
The Locks of Love project run by the Forrestal Elementary PTO in Great Lakes, Ill., collected hair to be made into wigs for children with medical-related hair loss. The school got extra help from new recruits at a nearby military base.

25,272 meals
Students from the five elementary schools in Michigan’s Woodhaven-Brownstown School District packaged meals for Kids Against Hunger. The schools’ PTOs and the Kiwanis Club sponsored the project.

400 knitted hats
The PTA at the Catharine Blaine K-8 School in Seattle taught students to knit and provided plenty of yarn. The hats that students made were donated to patients at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

A school bus full of food
In Las Flores, Calif., the PTAs at seven schools called on their families and the greater community to donate enough food to fill a school bus. The food was delivered to a local food pantry.