A school community is much like a family—it revels in its members’ triumphs, weathers its share of spats, and tries to hold each other up through tough times.

These days, because of an uncertain economy, many people continue to face tough times. As a result, parent groups are finding a much greater call as helpers, caretakers, and friends. With this increasing role of community service, parent groups are discovering creative ways to lend a hand, raise funds, and be a positive force during difficult times.

For parent groups, whose very mission is to offer support for schools and their families, it is often a natural response to try to assist others. “We have a very vibrant, active community that wants to help,” says Theresa Minden, who cochairs the recognition and support committee at the St. Viator Catholic School PTO in Las Vegas. “Serving on this committee makes PTO members feel they can bring comfort.”

The ways of helping are many, ranging from emotional support to assistance in the form of meals and carpooling to the offer of money to offset expenses. Organizational approaches differ, as well. Some groups have committees set up to manage community service and outreach programs. Others handle calls for help more informally. For example, some groups will conduct a separate collection from within the parent group to help a family that may have fallen on hard times.

What many parent groups find is that from these challenging times, many are helped. Not only are families in need assisted, but the parent groups can become stronger and community bonds grow tighter from the acts of kindness.

Word of families in crisis circulates in classrooms, in parking lots, on soccer fields. “Pretty much every-one knows what needs are when they happen,” says Sheila Featherston, a counselor and PTO member at Ripley County R-III School in Gatewood, Mo. Once parents understand that help is needed, the next step is to mobilize.

At Ripley, the PTO regularly organizes benefit fundraisers—usually a meal such as a barbecue or fish fry. The school board may donate the meat, and teachers and parents sign up to bring the rest of the food. A raffle of a quilt or other donated item is also part of the event. The most recent effort raised money to help a student’s father who was injured when a tree fell on him while he was clearing a road.

The aptly named benevolent fund has a long history at the Hilliard (Ohio) Bradley High School PTO. But its intent was to help students who lacked lunch money or couldn’t afford fees for a class like photography. When a discussion about school families in greater need arose at a PTO meeting three years ago, the group realized that the fund could be depleted quickly if it were used for these ever-increasing needs, says PTO president Marc Hogenbirk.

“We had the best breakout meeting we’d ever had in the PTO,” he recalls. “It was exciting and heartwarming to see this group brainstorming and coming up with ideas.”

The group wanted to take Hilliard Bradley’s logo—two hands holding a school—and put it into practice. With the help of corporate sponsors, a 5K race raised $3,200 in December for families with medical crises.

At Sudlersville (Md.) Elementary, PTA members worried over a student’s 18-month-old brother who was gravely ill. The PTA members devised a schedule for delivering meals four nights a week, says president Annette DiMaggio. As time went on, the PTA organized a 5K run that raised $1,200 for the family. As it turned out, the child recovered and the family’s health insurance covered most of the medical expenses. So the family donated the money raised to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where their child had been treated. The PTA members felt so good about their efforts that they’re planning a second annual run and seeking to identify a needy recipient, DiMaggio says.

Sometimes what a family needs is help with daily tasks. The recognition and support committee at St. Viator offers scrip to families so they can grab a quick bite to eat, tutors kids whose parents are distracted by more pressing needs, and provides house-sitting for families who must travel out of town.

The St. Viator group says that sometimes fami-lies are reluctant to accept their help, but they are determined to help their school community.

“Sometimes families are a little hesitant; they don’t want to put anyone out,” Minden says. “I push a little and emphasize that we’re trying to make a difficult time a little easier.”

Unfortunately, the desire to help inevitably knocks up against the reality of limited resources. With so much need, it’s not possible to help everyone financially, so groups decide on what they can do and what they can’t. At Ripley, says Featherston, “We focus on people with jobs and who are still struggling or who through illness can’t work. We want to help people who are trying to help themselves.”

Sometimes a family’s greatest need is knowing they’re not alone. At St. Viator, PTO members knew of a mom who was facing her first Christmas as a widow. Although her children were homeschooled, they belonged to the church affiliated with the school. The PTO decided to lift her spirits by bringing them the “12 Days of Christmas.” Each day featured a surprise connected to the well-known song. To recreate nine ladies dancing, PTO moms in tap shoes danced in the family’s yard.

The recipient was so touched that she later started a citywide movement called “In 12 Days” in an effort to bring similar joy to others. On the website (www.in12days.net) she writes, “We would look back on those 12 days and consider them a miracle. Now we knew that even the deepest suffering could one day be replaced by pure happiness.”


Create a Plan Before You Give

The desire to help is a wonderful response when a family is in need, but there are several issues to consider before you act.

First, when you decide to help an individual or family, you are setting a precedent for your group. As a matter of fairness, how will you decide in the future who receives help and who doesn’t? You may want to be extra generous the first time an issue like this comes up, but what about the second and third and fourth times? It can be very difficult to say no in these situations.

It’s helpful to think about a policy decision rather than simply reacting to an individual event. One approach is to create a fund to be administered by the school counselor or the principal. They’re in the best position to decide which families and children need help.

That approach also helps allay any concerns about conflict of interest if the person who needs help happens to be one of your officers, for instance. (Giving a significant amount of money directly to an officer can actually create an issue with the IRS.)

Some groups designate a committee and small budget, such as a “sunshine fund,” that can be used for token donations for unexpected events like an illness or death.

Often, parent groups will hold a collection for a family as a separate initiative that does not touch the existing PTO bank account. Some groups hold separate fundraisers targeted for a family in need.

The key is to avoid having to rate whether one family’s need is more significant than another’s. You want to preserve your funds for your primary goal, helping the school and the students. It’s important to do that in a balanced way through advance planning.

Tips for Offering Assistance

  • Assemble a committee so that you can share the workload, especially if assistance is needed over a long period of time or if there are multiple requests for help at once.

  • Be sensitive to a family’s desire for privacy. You may want to promote the group’s charitable work, but families receiving assistance most likely want to keep a low profile.

  • Enlist room parents in the class of the child whose family needs help. These parents will be particularly eager to participate.

  • Set parameters for assistance. Make clear whether you will raise money or offer other kinds of assistance, such as babysitting. Identify the specific kinds of situations that are appropriate, such as when someone in a family is undergoing medical treatment.

  • If you’re going to host a fundraiser, ask the family in need to complete a form accepting the money and agreeing to spend it on specified expenses.

  • When asking the family how you can help, give specific ideas. For example, suggest bringing dinner three nights a week for two weeks.

  • Before bringing meals, be sure to ask whether anyone in the family has food allergies.

  • Investigate additional resources that may be available within the school district and the community to help the family in need.