What’s a “nice Jewish boy” from Long Island with no wife and kids doing as the president of the PTA at an elementary school in one of inner city Miami’s most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods?
Having the time of his life, that’s what.
Four years ago Randy Heimler, now 45, said good bye to New York City subway commutes, his Upper West Side apartment, and a successful 20-year career as a jack of all trades in his family’s costume jewelry business. He sold his shares in the business and moved to South Florida as a financially independent man looking for a less harried, more fulfilling life.
Little did Heimler know that his response to an ad for mentors and tutors would lead him to a dynamic, ever-evolving volunteer position that, among other things, has him manning the school store at Miami’s Frederick Douglass Elementary School every morning from 7:30 to 8. Affectionately known as “Mr. Randy,” Heimler is an enthusiastic and tireless supporter of students, parents, teachers, and administrators. His ongoing efforts and accomplishments have earned him recognition as the PTA’s District Volunteer of the Year and the State Volunteer of the Year.
“Randy is very passionate about helping kids and people less fortunate than him,” says Cathleen McGinnis, principal at Frederick Douglass Elementary School, noting that his caring personality, let’s-get-it-done attitude, and business acumen have benefited the school community immeasurably.
“He’s great at building kids’ self-esteem,” says McGinnis. “He has helped to make this school a home away from home for the kids and has done so much to encourage parents and people in the community to get involved.
“He makes connections that bring the school resources we wouldn’t otherwise have,” continues McGinnis. “Just this morning he came into the school with 30 uniforms for kids who need them.” He’s also quick to dig into his own pocket to sponsor parent breakfasts, buy lawn equipment to keep the grounds well groomed, and to pay electric bills and buy groceries for families in need.
Ultimately, what drives Heimler most is working directly with students. “I started out as a tutor and mentor for third-graders, working with groups of three in the library,” he says. “Then I started working with kids who had tougher problems, kids who couldn’t get motivated. I saw their potential, the dedication of the teachers. It’s inspiring.”
In the beginning, Heimler estimates he was volunteering three hours a day. Now, he’s routinely at the school for eight hours a day, from 7:30 until 3:30. Heimler’s days, however, are anything but routine.
Although he has an office, Heimler is hardly ever in it. He is far more likely to be found in and around the school unloading donated shipments of school supplies, mentoring kids, reaching out to parents, recruiting volunteers, raising community awareness, generating financial support, and brainstorming with administrators and teachers about ways to boost morale and educational success.
“My focus is on the children and the families of the school,” says Heimler. “If a need comes up, I try to take care of it. This is as fulfilling as life gets.”
One of Heimler’s earliest and most noteworthy accomplishments was motivating students to raise more than $10,000 in a penny drive for the United Way. Not an easy feat considering that the school is located in the Overtown neighborhood of Miami, where 98 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The success of the penny drive earned Frederick Douglass the distinction of being the top fundraising school in the nation for United Way.
“This accomplishment opened a lot of doors for us, because United Way noticed us and started sending programs our way,” says Heimler, pointing out that organizations that supported the United Way also started supporting the school. For instance, volunteers from Hands On Miami painted portable classrooms, Citizens for a Better South Florida planted trees, and employees from Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines spruced up the school inside and out. Other programs that Heimler has spearheaded include:
- Creating a multifaceted good-conduct incentive program to allow teachers to reward students for good behavior on a monthly basis. Rewards have included field trips to the Biscayne Nature Center, IMAX movies, holiday parties, even a visit to the airport that included boarding a United Airlines plane and taxiing around the gate area.
- Coordinating the school’s Second Cup of Coffee program for parents. The program welcomes parents to stay at school after they drop off the kids, have a cup of coffee with other parents, and participate in workshops on a changing roster of curriculum and school-related topics.
- Orchestrating a Career Awareness Day that had more than 150 professionals on site to talk about their careers in medicine, law, business, police and fire safety, opera, cable, and more. “The event had a positive influence on the kids, because they see that the community cares,” says Heimler. “They benefit from the interaction and people coming into the school to talk about what they do.”
- Boosting membership in the PTA and involvement in the school. Heimler’s active presence in the school and in the children’s lives has caught the attention of an increasing number of parents. “He’s here making kids happy and building their self-esteem,” says McGinnis. “What parent wouldn’t be happy to have someone like him helping their kids? It draws more parents in.” During his tenure, membership in the PTA has jumped from 60 to 200 parents.
Besides these programs, Heimler has been instrumental in funneling thousands of dollars worth of in-kind donations to students from retailers such as Burdines and Payless Shoes, as well as manufacturers in New York City’s garment district. Indeed, Heimler’s brothers regularly donate costume jewelry to him to sell for a fraction of their value at the school store.
Like the dedicated teachers and administrators at Frederick Douglass Elementary, Heimler is in it for the long haul. He wants to be there when the school, which received its second failing F grade from the Florida Department of Education at the close of the 2001-2002 academic year, scores the highest grade possible. “We recently jumped to a C rating, and I’m staying until it’s an A. I’m inspired by the children, the progress they’ve made, their happy faces, and the dedication of the teachers and staff.”
Way to go, Mr. Randy!
Randy Heimler's Parent Involvement Tips
As president of the Frederick Douglass Elementary School PTA, “Mr. Randy” Heimler has helped increase membership from 60 to 200. Here are some tips for building involvement, based on his experience.
- Take advantage of all opportunities to interact with parents. Catch them on their way in and out of the building, post flyers, send home communications, make phone calls, invite them in for coffee and morning programs, set up information tables on the first day of school and at special events.
- Create an environment that encourages parents to hang around the school. The more they hang around, the more likely they are to build relationships with other parents, feel a part of the place, and pitch in. Frederick Douglass Elementary’s principal, Cathleen McGinnis, reports that when Heimler observed parents waiting to pick up kids outside the school had no place to sit, he bought a few benches and had them installed. “He found a way to make the environment more conducive.”
- Make it as easy as possible to volunteer. Heimler, in cooperation with the school’s volunteer liaison, makes sure there are numerous ways for parents to help out whenever they happen to be available. “I tell them we need you; please volunteer,” says Heimler. “We’re not strict about scheduling. There are opportunities available every day. All a parent has to do is come in, and the volunteer liaison will assign them to a class or the library.”
- Follow up. Whenever you make contact with a prospective volunteer, follow up as soon as possible. The additional personal contact goes a long way in getting a prospective volunteer to act.
- Overcome language barriers. Schools with immigrant populations have to be especially mindful of reaching out to immigrant parents in their native languages. Heimler makes a special effort to have staff and teachers who speak Spanish on hand for the Second Cup of Coffee morning program, which encourages parent interaction.