LAFAYETTE — ’Tis the season for giving, but at more than a dozen Lafayette Parish Schools the sentiment stretches throughout the year from a corps of volunteers who give their time as part of the school system’s faith and character task force.
The task force has about 100 members representing more than 50 churches who have adopted more than a dozen schools. The task force was created in 2013 — when then-superintendent Pat Cooper invited church leaders of different denominations to organize a comprehensive approach to volunteerism in local schools.
“Many churches were already in schools working directly with principals, so when Dr. Cooper asked us to form a task force, it united us in scope and in purpose with the whole idea of adopt-a-school,” said Bobby Richard, pastor of Hope Alive Freedom Church and task force chairman.
Some churches have started mentor programs at their schools and visit with students weekly during an elective period — such as physical education or music class.
For volunteers like James Craft, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, his weekly meetings have been a learning experience both for himself and for the young student he mentors at Evangeline Elementary.
Craft said he helps the student with homework and talks with him about what’s going on in his life at school and at home. They also talk about making good choices.
One example was the time his student found “Cub Cash” on the floor at the school, a reward students can earn for making positive choices and can cash in at the school store.
The student Craft is mentoring was going to keep it for himself until Craft asked what he’d want to see happen if he lost his Cub Cash and someone else found it. His student ended up turning the money in to the office.
“When you show concern to a child and they connect with you, they warm up with you and they trust you,” Craft said. “You feel the responsibility that you have because of that feeling, there’s nothing you would do that would endanger that relationship. It becomes an important part of life. That’s what I’ve discovered with my kiddo.”
Assistant Principal Mary Spencer said the school’s staff matches mentors to students who could benefit from a listening ear.
“The benefit of having the one-on-one mentorship is that it gives students the opportunity to have a personal bond with an adult who is spending time listening to what they have to say,” Spencer said.
The school is blessed, Spencer said, to have three churches adopting it and providing help — Calvary, Northwood United Methodist Church and Living Glory Church.
“It means so much to me personally, when I see the pastor actually wiping down the cafeteria tables,” Spencer said. “For car riders, the volunteers are here opening car doors in the morning. It’s a sight to behold.”
At Katharine Drexel Elementary, volunteers have been valuable in helping the first week of school run smoothly and also provide support throughout the year, said Principal Denise Soileau.
“When we got our school scores, I wanted to do a lunch for my teachers, so I called the church. They had 10 to 15 volunteers here with 24-hour notice,” Soileau said.
The volunteers also support school events, such as working the school’s book fair, Soileau said, and supporting teachers by purchasing pencils and other items to reward students for making positive choices.
The volunteers’ presence has had an impact on the school’s morale, Soileau said.
“For me to say it’s had a direct educational impact would be misleading because they haven’t worked directly with instruction,” she said. “It has had an impact on attitude and atmosphere where everybody from staff, faculty to parents has this positive relationship and knows they can ask for help when they need it.”
During the school year, volunteers also help by working cafeteria duty so teachers can enjoy meals in the lounge. A few times a year, the volunteers also arrive en masse to provide teachers a meal, as they did the week before the Christmas break.
As volunteers from Hope Alive dished out crawfish é toufée for teachers, other volunteers like Jenni Skipper took duty in the cafeteria helping move students through the hand-washing line and offering them paper towels.
“I like to be silly with the kids,” she said as she wore elf ears and a holiday hat with bells. A candy-cane-printed scarf was draped at her neck.
Hope Alive’s outreach in the community is one of the things that attracted her to the church when she was considering a place of worship. She volunteers at Drexel at least once a month or whenever needed.
“I’ve been blessed and I try to help others,” Skipper said. “Over here, I get to represent Jesus.”
On the public school campuses, the volunteers aren’t allowed to preach and that line is clearly understood, said Nicole MacDowell, children’s pastor at Hope Alive. MacDowell is Soileau’s point of contact when needs may arise at the school.
“Our goal is to simply just come and serve,” MacDowell said. “We just got to love people. That’s what it’s about. When we come in, we know what our role is here.”
MacDowell said the goal is to get more local churches involved at Drexel.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.