Parents who squeeze volunteering into busy lives learn how to be organized. Angie Wotring, PTO copresident at Schmucker Middle School in Mishawaka, Ind., says, "I write everything down. I have to take time every morning to prioritize tasks." She also uses her lunch hour at work to get some tasks done.

Sarah Clark, who volunteers at Wines Elementary School in Ann Arbor, Mich., in addition to a full-time job, finds that folders help her. "I have a summer camps folder, a book groups folder, a picnic folder," she says. "It’s no different than keeping the house organized or keeping track of bills or writing stuff on a calendar."

No one can do it alone, though. Kelly Martin, a single mom who works full time and volunteers at Geggie Elementary School in Eureka, Mo., says, "Sunday night I sit down with the calendar to plan out the week and recognize when I’m going to need help. We all help each other out, like calling another mom and saying ‘I can’t be there; can you fill in for me? Or can you watch my kids so I can go do this other thing?’ I plan way in advance."

She also gives responsibility to her kids. "They do chores, keep the house picked up, take care of themselves as far as grooming," she says. "I talk to them about how we’re a team and we couldn’t get this done if they didn’t do their part."

Sometimes you may need reinforcements. That happened to Wendy Heersink, who coordinates the Family Fun Night auction at Geggie Elementary. The parent working with her had to pull back, and Heersink’s husband, who travels for his job, was out of town. "I had to fly my mother in from Colorado," says Heersink. "She came and took care of my kids and helped me get organized."

A parent group partner can ease the stress immensely. Wotring returned to full-time work as a project manager at the University of Notre Dame just as she became copresident of the PTO. Her partner also began working full-time. They managed by allowing each other to step back periodically. "Split responsibilities help quite a bit," says Wotring. "And I don’t spend as much time on the phone. A lot of things are done by communicating during the day through email."

A fellow officer to lean on allowed Sue Keskinen the time she needed to devote to her mother, who has cancer. "My mother has been staying with us for the past month," says Keskinen, cochair of the Ramsey School Association at Ramsey Junior High School in St. Paul, Minn. "There have been times I was not able to carry my weight....The cochair has asked the same thing of me when she had a work project or family issues."

Sometimes, though, despite assistance, a volunteer reaches a breaking point. "The hardest thing to balance is boundaries," she says. "You have to recognize when you need to step back and know your family is first." Last year, Heersink handled the PTO’s membership and served as secretary in addition to her responsibilities with Family Fun Night. It was especially challenging because her school was in transition with an interim principal and a revamped PTO. Realizing she had taken on too much, she became overwhelmed. As a result, she scaled back her involvement for the coming year.

"I’m not going to be the secretary," she says. "I had to step down. What I learned is that it was too much. If there aren’t enough people to volunteer, you really have to reach out and delegate. It doesn’t work if you just ask if there are any volunteers. You have to talk to someone face to face. And be okay with how they’ll get it done. It’s supposed to be fun."

Parent or PTO Leader?

Parents volunteer at school for the sake of their children. Sometimes, though, their PTO involvement can interfere with the desire to support their children. Shawna Masters, president of the PTO at Spring Hill Elementary School in Spring Hill, Kan., finds that when she goes into her daughter’s classroom to help, other parents approach her with PTO business.

"I’ll go in and people will start on PTO stuff," says Masters. "But I tell them, ‘For the next two hours I’m just a mom.’ If what they need will take more than a couple of seconds, I try to put them off. I say to call me at home or write that on a note. Or I tell them I’ll be done volunteering when school’s out." Even teachers appeal to her about PTO grant requests; she asks them to fill out the appropriate form and put it in the PTO box.

Volunteering that benefits the entire school can also draw the focus away from one’s own children. "When my kids are in the concert and I’m playing the piano, I don’t have the luxury of enjoying the show," admits Clark. The same thing happened at last year’s picnic, when Clark spent the whole time making sure volunteers were in place. "I have a different experience, a different perspective," she says, adding that what she loses is offset by what she gains.

And being at the school can allow a parent a role in difficult situations. "At the beginning of this year my daughter had a hard time adjusting to all-day kindergarten," says Heersink. "The first two weeks, she spent 85 percent of the time with the school counselor. I tried to encourage her to stay in the classroom. I worked with the counselor. We went through that together."

An involved parent leader, all agree, is always a parent first. "I’m an advocate for all parents, all children," says Keskinen. "In my role as PTO cochair, I never ask for anything special for myself or my children. But as a parent of a child in school, I strongly feel that the person who’s most responsible for my child’s education is me as a parent. If I’m not there to ask my son about his homework or ask about what’s going on at school, if I don’t do my part at home to support what’s going on at school, then I’m not doing the right thing as a parent in a public school."

Tools of the Trade

What tools couldn’t you do without to keep your PTO and personal lives organized and balanced? Here’s a list from one super-organized PTO president, PTO Today contributor Christy Forhan of Scotch Elementary in West Bloomfield, Mich.

  • Assorted colored paper to make signs and flyers on short notice
  • A strong three-hole punch
  • White three-ring binders, the kind with the cover window—one per major project
  • File box or file drawers
  • Hanging files and manila folders to go in the file boxes
  • Binder clips, because paper clips often aren’t big enough
  • Highlighters and fine-line pens to color-code our family calendar, one color per child
  • A laminated school visitor’s badge so I don’t use up a sticker every time I go into the building
  • A real paper cutter, like they have at school
  • A dining room table for all the active overflow
  • Carpools—absolutely essential
  • Quick meal plans
  • A cordless house phone
  • Two copies of the school directory, for house and car, plus copies from past years to look up "old" numbers
  • Two reams of paper and an extra printer cartridge
  • Like-minded PTO friends to share the load
  • A great husband/involved dad
  • And a promise to myself and my family that Mommy is Mommy after 3:30 p.m.