Moira McCarthy

It was the moment all parents dream of from the day they send junior to kindergarten. My daughter was on the stage at her graduation, being honored as one of the top students in her class and the top community service student. As I beamed brightly enough to warn ships away from our coastal town’s rocks, another mother leaned over and whispered, "What’s your secret to her success?"

Were I in a sitcom, I would have gazed knowingly into a camera and a giant cartoon bubble would have appeared over my head. In the bubble, for all the world to see, would be some of my memorable experiences from my daughter’s years in school.

Like the day I had to drive my car 40 miles with more than 2,000 donated bags of potato chips in it for field day.

Or the eighth-grade whale watch—me holding back the hair of child after child after seasick child, each throwing up with gusto.

Me running the middle school "store" at lunchtime, my adolescent daughter recoiling in horror at the vision of her mom exposed to her world.

Or the midnight session when a handful of moms finished off all the goody bags for Breakfast with Santa. Candy cane, jingle bell, note from Santa—over and over until there were 700 of them.

Those images passed through my mind as the woman, awaiting my response, wondered why I was smiling.

"Good study habits," I said with a wink. Because really, who would believe that the seemingly benign tasks of school volunteers lead to academic success for their children?

Well, me, for one. It’s in my blood; I was raised by a volunteering mom. While my school memories are peppered with thoughts of big exams and advanced courses, the real spice comes from things like the time my mom stayed up all night sewing green felt skirts for the backup cast for my fifth-grade production of Macbeth. (I got to be the main witch; Mom got just about every other task.)

Mom was a PTO president, a classroom mom, a field trip chaperone. She was, without saying so out loud, my partner in everything I did at school. I never thought much about it then. I mean, isn’t that just what moms and dads do?

Then I became a mom. I stumbled into my first PTO meeting not knowing a soul; I was a young parent, and this was my first child in the school. In that room, as one friend with older children had promised me would happen, I found a group of people as motivated and dedicated about being a positive part of their children’s education as I wanted to be.

Before I knew it, I was one of the handful of moms always on the "do." Setting up the field day and then running it—my child feeling special because we got to show up early and stay late. Helping run an auction that would raise more money than our little PTO had ever seen before. Lugging 488 juice boxes from the storage area to the park day pick-up spot. Books! Field trips! Curtains for the auditorium! Oh, we were leaving our mark.

Deep down, I knew what I was doing would pay off. I was showing my daughter that to make things happen, you have to roll up your sleeves. I was, subliminally, letting her know that school and its surrounding activities were an important part of her life. I was letting her know I shared that with her.

As she took the stage that graduation day, she was joined by four or five other top achievers. Watching them line up, I had a revelation: Each was the child of one of those parents helping that night with the Santa bags. Lugging the juice boxes. Setting up the balloon toss while the other parents waited impatiently for us to get field day going, for heaven’s sake.

I leaned over to one of the other moms, tapped her on the shoulder, and gestured toward the stage where our kids were reveling in the kudos. "We must have picked the right crafts for crafts night," I said, smiling. She knew just what I meant.
—Moira McCarthy

Joyce Shoemake

In taking a PTO office at Sugarland Elementary School in Sterling, Va., Joyce Shoemake saw an opportunity to boost her self-confidence. "I’ve always been shy; I’m not an outgoing person," she says.

Wanting to participate, Shoemake at first took on simple tasks like collecting tickets or passing out pizza at bingo and movie nights. "As I got more involved, I found I could do these things," she says. Eventually, she accepted the role of vice president and then, last year, president. The first time she spoke at a meeting was nerve-racking, but, she says, "I finally calmed myself down and realized this was easy."

Not only did Shoemake address parents; she also, along with other concerned parents, found herself in front of the school board and district supervisors to pressure them to hurry some much-needed renovations. Built in 1975 before regulations mandated sprinkler systems, the school had old-fashioned heating elements that overheated, one day causing enough smoke to draw the fire department. And there was no heat in some rooms. "What I said at the meeting was, ‘Hey, look, some of our students will come in wearing jackets during classes because the rooms are so cold. Do you want our students to freeze?’" The petition to renovate was approved, and work began in June 2006, four years ahead of the originally planned date.

Shoemake, who works full time as a customer service representative for an automotive repair company, juggles PTO responsibilities with coaching her children’s sports teams. The fact that her husband works nights makes their schedule even more hectic. But Shoemake learned how to stay organized from her father, a career military man, and her experience leading the parent group has proved exciting for the entire family. "My daughter keeps asking when our next event is," she says.
—Evelyn Beck

Patti Benson

Some mornings, Patti Benson’s daughter refuses to go to school. She might resist getting out of bed, or she might not budge from the van during drop-off. This sort of behavior, along with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, is characteristic of Asperger’s Disorder, a kind of autism. Benson, who also has twin sons, has learned to expect the unexpected. But she hasn’t let the challenge of parenting a special needs child keep her from serving the PTO at Horn Elementary School in Iowa City, Iowa.

"When someone approached me about taking over the position of volunteer coordinator, I thought that would be too much at first," she says. "Then I decided that I did know a lot of families at the school and that it was a good way to know the staff as well as the parents and students." For three years, Benson served as the liaison between school and home, maintaining a database of volunteers on whom she could call to serve in classrooms or support the art and music programs. She’d seek help for specific tasks, such as reading to children or hanging their artwork. Benson’s biggest challenge each year was staffing the family fun night, a winter fundraiser requiring more than 200 sets of hands.

"Sometimes it feels like you’re pulling all the strings you have," she says. "Everybody’s so busy."

Next year, Benson will assume the PTO presidency. She will juggle these new duties along with driving her daughter to multiple therapy appointments: routine pediatric visits, occupational and physical therapy, play therapy, and consultations at the University of Iowa child psychology department. But rather than viewing parent group work as an added burden, Benson finds that it’s an outlet. "Maybe it’s kind of a distraction," she says. "It gives you something else to focus on besides your child’s special needs. And it’s a challenge for you to feel like you’re being productive and needed."
—Evelyn Beck

Anne Schuster

The bonds Anne Schuster formed as PTO president at the Inavale School in Corvallis, Ore., helped her through a difficult year of chemotherapy. "The school folks raised money to pay for a cleaning service to come in and help me out," she says. "The lead teacher would stop by and bring me healthy stuff like seaweed; another time she brought me lounging pajamas. Other people brought me books, books on tape, dinners, flowers, fresh produce, blueberries, pineapple, truffles, a homemade quilt, an afghan, plants, videos, and cookies. People were helping drive my kids around. And we would just talk."

But even more, the PTO kept her involved. Although the copresident stepped up to handle more of the work, Schuster remained a vital part of the group. "They would ask my advice," she says. "We would email so I could keep my fingers in the works a bit. They did all the legwork."

The vitality of this school community illustrated exactly what Inavale’s leaders had spent the year trying to show the district, which ultimately decided that it cost too much to leave the small rural school open. Schuster participated on the periphery while she was undergoing cancer treatment. "They were just trying to prove that the school is fiscally responsible to the community. But the district chose not to support the school," she says, adding, "There is just such an acceptance level at this place. We’re more than parent volunteers. We’re part of the school." And Inavale parents triumphed after all; they received a $25,000 grant to research becoming a charter school.

As the PTO president for several years, Schuster, a former plant molecular biologist, can look back on accomplishments such as starting a recycling program, putting up a greenhouse, and helping initiate the 4-H Wildlife Stewards program, from the Oregon State University Extension Service, to enable kids to explore the natural world. It’s the little things, however, that stick with her, like making cookies or apple cider to brighten staff members’ days. "A friend and I call it ‘sprinkling fairy dust,’" says Schuster.

Schuster, who was feeling stronger by the end of the year, jumped back in with the school’s final activity: a barbecue extravaganza for students, families, staff, and alumni from the past 56 years. Hundreds of people donned T-shirts with the school’s motto, which could serve as a reminder for what the experiences at Inavale have meant to Schuster and so many others: "Live long in our hearts."
—Evelyn Beck

Kelly Martin

Kelly Martin became a self-described "worker bee" at her sons’ school, Geggie Elementary in Eureka, Mo., to become part of the solution.

"I could feel this resistance on the part of teachers when a parent who hadn’t been involved in the math program criticized it," says Martin. She concurred that the school needed more emphasis in this vital area, but she also understood that it’s human nature to react defensively when criticized. "Instead of offering advice, it’s better to offer to help," says Martin, who volunteered to go in before school to do math flash cards with some of the kids. She also helps with the paperwork, collection, and distribution involved in fall and spring fundraisers, works a booth at carnival night, and cooks meals for teacher appreciation events.

As a full-time drug representative and a single mom, Martin has had to make sacrifices to be an involved parent. "I only sleep five to six hours a night," she says, admitting that she’s always tired. "But I don’t focus on that. I focus on what needs to be done every day, moment by moment. I don’t worry about how much I have to do. I just do the best I can, then go to bed, get up, and do it again." She retains her sense of humor, too. "When someone calls to ask me to do something else, I tell them I have free time from midnight to 6 a.m.," she says.

Although she rises early to exercise and have time with her kids, Martin says she’s had to satisfy herself with less visible roles as a school volunteer. "Not being a leader is hard for me because I’ve always had leadership roles since junior high. But for me, knowing I don’t have time to be a leader, I just do whatever needs to be done when I can show up. That’s been huge. The PTO needs people like that. People think the group needs presidents and vice presidents and treasurers, and they do. But they also definitely need a lot of other people to do the grunt work. And there’s a lot of reward in that."
—Evelyn Beck

Originally posted in 2006 and updated regularly