Single father Rich Linden wants everyone who gets involved with the parent group to have fun.

by Emily Graham


Like many parent group presidents, Rich Linden struggled to balance the competing demands of work, family, and school. But unlike the previous presidents at his daughter’s elementary school, he was raising his children as a single father.

It was his adopted nephew and his daughter that Linden was thinking of when he volunteered to serve as board president of the John Diemer Elementary PTA. After serving on the board for two years, Linden stepped in as president in 2003-04 when the previous officeholder at the Overland Park, Kan., school resigned. He hoped the post would provide opportunities to socialize with parents in his neighborhood and talk about parenting issues.

“I thought, How hard can it be?” Linden says. “Then I learned it’s smokin’ hard. It’s crazy!”

Although his involvement to this point had consisted mainly of DJ’ing the school carnival, he quickly proved he was up for the challenge. Linden served as PTA president at Diemer Elementary from 2003 to 2005 and the next year took the gavel at Indian Woods Middle School, also in Overland Park.

A self-described “party guy,” Linden applied the same philosophical approach to the PTA as he did to his events planning business. “I want everyone to have fun,” he says.

Not only did Linden want to support the school; he also wanted to make it easier for all kinds of parents and parental figures to become involved with the PTA. As a single parent, he often felt self-conscious sitting alone at school events while most parents came with their spouses. In particular, he wanted other fathers, single parents, grandparents raising their grandchildren, and families for whom English is a second language to feel welcome.

“In many [parent groups], there’s a stigma that it is the stay-at-home-mothers club,” Linden says. “I wanted us to give an opportunity for everyone to get involved.”

Linden knew that many of these parents wanted to do more at school but faced barriers to greater involvement. He had run into a few of them himself. Although his work schedule is flexible, he had encountered difficulty volunteering for field trips. Because parents signed up to chaperone field trips at a back-to-school event, stay-at-home parents who showed up early in the day often took the available slots. To allow additional parents to volunteer, Linden set aside some slots to be filled by dads.

To get buy-in from fathers, Linden hosted a barbecue catered by a popular restaurant and asked dads to share their ideas for the parent group. About 30 dads attended. As a result of their input, the PTA tried to keep meetings short and held a series of events geared toward fathers. Realizing that parents could be intimidated if volunteer opportunities seemed too demanding, he emphasized that helping at school should be fun and parents shouldn’t be afraid to try out new ideas.

“They see me bumbling along, not afraid to make mistakes and have fun,” Linden says. “I always tell people, ‘You can’t screw things up more than I already have, so just go for it.’ ”

The PTA put a spin on the traditional parents’ lunch day, specifically inviting fathers to a dads’ picnic in the school gym. All parents were invited to attend, and attendance by fathers surged. When fathers had work conflicts, they often asked other parents to “adopt” their children for lunch.

The PTA challenged fathers to help out more at school and organized a “no moms allowed” week during which fathers, grandfathers, and uncles volunteered to do every task usually performed by a volunteer mom. “Moms have carried the loads for so long,” Linden says. “It’s time for the dads to step up and help them.”

The men developed a greater appreciation for what mothers had been doing all year long, and the women realized that men do make a difference, he says. The men also learned that they can do a little work and get a lot of attention: The dads’ volunteer week was covered by local news outlets and mentioned in a Wall Street Journal article on parent involvement in school.

While his father’s generation coached their children’s sports teams and led scout troops, Linden sees men in his generation doing that and more—tutoring kids at school and volunteering for parent groups.

“More and more men are becoming involved,” he says. “It’s a generational thing. I’ve seen a huge difference in the last five years I’ve been a part of it.”

Because his daughter uses a wheelchair, Linden was keenly aware of the need to improve accessibility at Diemer Elementary. He approached the school’s fathers’ group, the Diemer Dads, with the idea of repairing the crumbling school track and repaving the parking lot to add handicapped parking spaces.

“He was able to motivate the fathers’ group to get involved and have a special connection with the school,” says Principal Jan Turner. “He’s very kid-oriented. He really wants to do what it takes to make sure kids get the best they can get.”

As Linden became increasingly involved at school, the stress of running a business, being a single dad, and leading a parent group took its toll. One evening a few months into his first term as president, Linden rushed around the house trying to make dinner, supervise homework, and prepare for a PTA meeting that night. Worried that he would be late, he snapped at the kids, who questioned why he was so busy in the first place.

When he told them, “I’m doing this for you guys!” they asked him to stop taking on so much. Linden began delegating more and decided it wasn’t necessary to be at every single PTA committee meeting and event. The change gave him more time for family activities, including taking his children to local theater productions and supporting their interests in sports, music, and drama.

In the past year, Linden remarried, and he reduced his PTA involvement even more as his nephew started high school and his daughter moved up to middle school. But it may not be long before Linden is back in a leadership role at Diemer, where his wife’s son is in first grade. Principal Turner, for one, is counting on Linden doing another stint with the PTA.

“He has not eliminated the possibility of doing that again,” she says. “I’m anticipating he’ll come back because there is a need.”

For now, though, Linden is telling everyone at the school they’ll have to wait. He’s taking a year off to remodel his house and spend time with his family.

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