Submitted by North Thurston Public Schools
If you have been looking for ways to build community, support local youth and add a greater sense of meaning to your life, look no further than North Thurston Public Schools (NTPS). This local district has many volunteer opportunities specifically designed to encourage peer-to-peer and intergenerational collaboration, social and emotional learning (SEL), and community-driven critical thinking. Everyone from retirees to high school students can lend a hand and contribute to the positive development of our youth.
“Mentoring is shown to increase graduation rates, decrease dropout rates, and enhance self-esteem and confidence,” says Courtney Schrieve, who oversees the district’s mentor program. “More than that, it’s the social-emotional benefit of giving a young person someone that they know really cares about them.” Courtney supports connections with community organizations such as Pizza Klatch, the YWCA Youth Action Circle, and Give Back. She is particularly excited about developing mentoring opportunities with the military community at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
A new partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Washington (BBBS) has expanded a peer mentoring program that started at South Bay Elementary to include middle schools. This structure will help foster positive connections between middle and high school-aged youth. Student volunteers from the older age group are carefully matched with counselor-nominated students from the younger age group and meet for about an hour once per week. They play games, have conversations, and engage in other group activities that build SEL skills such as active listening, positive friendship skills, and good communication.
“Today’s middle school students were pulled out of school at a key developmental stage due to COVID,” explains Robyn Handley, the site-based program manager at BBBS. “Having a trusted person dedicated to them who they can see every week makes a huge difference, especially for kids who might have struggled with middle school anyway.”
Adults with strong communication and interpersonal skills, high emotional intelligence, and a desire and willingness to support a student during a challenging and vulnerable time can apply to be a one-on-one adult mentor through BBBS. This one-year commitment involves about one hour of time per week during lunch or after school. There is a particular need for male mentors who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color.
High school students interested in becoming a “Big” through BBBS can apply using this application. Adults interested in participating in the program can contact Courtney Schrieve for more information or complete the volunteer query form. Keep in mind this process can take several weeks. Thorough background and reference checks are crucial for the safety of all participants.
Adults in the community can also volunteer directly with the district. Nancy Cutlip is the district’s volunteer liaison and says there is a particular need for readers in classrooms. “Volunteering changes the heart,” Nancy says. “A person who volunteers can often receive more than they give. It’s a reciprocal relationship.” Adults with weekly one-hour availability during the school day can apply to be paired with an elementary school classroom. Students with a need for enhanced attention around literacy benefit tremendously from consistent reading time with an adult.
Prefer to be active during your volunteer time? Volunteer coaches are always welcome in NTPS athletics programs. North Thurston High School has a volunteer girls’ volleyball coach who has participated in the last five seasons! Adults who can’t fit a weekly commitment in their schedule but who want to get involved can sign up to just get alerts about special event opportunities. Email Nancy with questions or ideas about how you can get involved!
Nancy also oversees the Helping Hands program. This new program allows local nonprofit and faith-based groups to support student achievement while providing recognition for their members. Organizations are asked to commit to at least three agreed-upon events or activities at their neighborhood partner school. NTPS will spread the word about events and activities your organization participates in. Interested organizations can reach out to Nancy with questions and ideas.
NTPS’s efforts around building opportunities for community collaboration and involvement in the name of student support are very intentional. In 2019, the NTPS school board put forth a determination in line with their Strategic Plan Goals that said every student should “demonstrate skills in creative and evaluative reasoning, communication, and collaboration to address challenges in a socially just and democratic society.” They wanted to see an increased percentage of students participating in at least one positive school or community-based activity to support this goal.
Developing district-driven programs that engage the community and building strong partnerships with existing local community organizations are key to the collaborative approach the board called for. “It really does take a village,” says Nancy. “The more caring, supportive adults we can have on the playground, in the classroom, in the lunchroom, and at activities, the better it is for our students and the well-being of our community.”