School events struggle without parent volunteers

  • (Photo by dreamstime.com) According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 25.4 percent of the population volunteered in the year that ended September 2013. That volunteer rate was the lowest it's been since 2002.

LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) - Betty Heydt and a handful of other volunteers have been painting post-prom decorations since September.

They've also been trying - so far, with limited results - to get local businesses to donate food, money and prizes for Ephrata High School's post-prom on May 17.

When an email seeking volunteers was sent out to 900 parents, the post-prom committee received just one response.

It wasn't an offer to help; it was a question about the New York City bus trip that's intended to raise money for the post-prom.

"I think it will all come together - it usually does," said Lisa Kachel, the committee's volunteer coordinator. "But it's nerve-racking."

Across Lancaster County, post-prom committees, PTOs, the Girl Scouts and youth sports organizations are dealing with a dearth of volunteers.

The parental volunteer shortage isn't universal: Manheim Central High School's post-prom committee consists of parents who have been "active from kindergarten the whole way through," said parent Kelly Shenk, who's also the high school's office manager.

But at Conestoga Valley High School, this year's post-prom planning meetings have drawn fewer than a dozen parents.

Jim Yowler, CV's post-prom committee chairman, said there simply weren't enough parent volunteers to put on a traditional post-prom at the school.

A Baltimore harbor cruise is planned instead.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 25.4 percent of the population volunteered in the year that ended September 2013.

That volunteer rate was the lowest it's been since 2002.

Carol Auster, professor of sociology at Franklin & Marshall College, said that "in a society that tends to measure success in terms of one's achievements in the workplace ... fathers and mothers alike may be working long hours and have less time and energy to be parent volunteers."

The service economy requires "emotional labor," Auster said. "Perhaps folks are too emotionally spent at the end of a day to take on the kind of face-to-face volunteering needed to be a parent volunteer."

Dave Neslund is a former president of the now-defunct Manheim Township Blue Streaks Booster Club.

When it comes to volunteering, the 80/20 rule generally has held: 20 percent of parents do 80 percent of the work.

But lately, Neslund said, it's been more like 90/10.

It's "the same 10-12 people you're tapping all the time to help out," he said.

At Manheim Township High School, the Blue Streaks Booster Club used to run concessions to raise money for team photos and senior gifts. That club was disbanded at the end of last school year.

Fewer people were coming to meetings and sporting events, so revenues were down. And people seemed to prefer giving their time directly to the particular sport their child played.

School sports now compete for people's attention with a host of outside activities and interests, he said.

"Society," he noted, "has perhaps become more fragmented."

Neslund said he's volunteered for several different organizations.

"I'm somebody who found value in it," he said, adding with a laugh, "I got to talk to my kids' friends and I got more information from them than I did from my own kids."

"Some people would rather just write a check," Neslund said, pointing to a reality that is supported by polls.

But some things, Neslund said, "you can't solve with a check."

Sometimes, he said, you need people's talents and time.

"We all think we're so busy, but I have to tell you, I don't think my parents were any less busy than I am."

Betty Heydt, chairwoman of Ephrata High School's post-prom committee, agreed: "Everybody says, 'I'm busy, I'm busy, I'm busy.' I'm like, 'We're all busy.'"

When it comes to volunteering, Heydt said, "parents always think the next person will take care of it."

This is the first year she is chairing Ephrata High School's post-prom committee.

"Post-prom needed somebody, or it would have gone away," she said.

She said of the 10 or so volunteers who have helped to paint props and backdrops for the post-prom, three no longer have kids at Ephrata High School.

Heydt said the volunteer shortage has exacerbated the post-prom's funding woes.

In other years, parent volunteers have helped to solicit donations for post-prom.

This year, Heydt said, "We're nowhere near where we should be."

She also served as a president and vice president for the Ephrata Band Parent Association.

A small group of people do everything, Heydt noted.

When she needed to find replacements for the association's officers, it took her two years, she said.

Lisa Kachel said she thinks parents are wary of taking on leadership positions that require long-term commitments.

"I think parents will step up and volunteer that night," Kachel said. "It's just doing the prep work."

She thinks now that with so many families having both parents in the workforce, people are "just exhausted."

Heydt said she thinks parental involvement may have taken a hit when schools started requiring parents to submit background clearances.

The clearances cost about $50, and require parents to be finger-printed and to fill out paperwork.

But some parents, Heydt said, use the clearances requirement as an excuse to get out of helping.

Conestoga Valley's Fritz Elementary School will hold its spring fair - an international festival this year - on May 9.

"I'm making this happen one way or another," said Shelley Myers, Fritz's PTO president.

She had to threaten to cancel the fair at one point because so few parents were pitching in. She's had to cancel or scale back other PTO programs for the same reason.

"I just don't think you should have to get to the point where you're begging parents to be involved," said Myers, a mother of seven who also serves as president of Conestoga Valley Youth Cheerleading Inc.

She said she feels like she's being "a bother" to other parents because she's always having to send letters home, or email blasts, appealing for help.

"It's nuts," she said. "You just think, 'Where is everybody?'"

Malena Kramer, Conestoga Valley's Volunteers in Action coordinator, said the district has seen a "slight decline in the number of volunteers, but the number of (volunteer) hours has not declined."

In other words, just as much is getting done, but it's being done by a smaller group of people.

Kramer said that when she started volunteering eight years ago, "There were just more people willing to do more involved stuff."

She is in charge of organizing the May 6 staff appreciation luncheon at Fritz Elementary.

It's a huge undertaking - a themed lunch will be served to 90 people - being pulled together by Kramer and two friends whose sons no longer even attends the school.

Kramer said she's tried to get other parents involved, but "they just don't want to make that huge commitment."

In her experience, volunteering has been a "win-win" for her, her children, and her kids' teachers.

So she urges others to get involved, and to get their friends involved.

"If people band together and help each other ... that just makes a world of difference."

Jim Yowler, chairman of Conestoga Valley High School's post-prom committee, has a seventh-grader and a sophomore.

He and his wife Melissa are planning a party their own kids won't get to attend this year.

Only juniors and seniors may attend post-prom.

Yowler stepped up in March 2013 to lead the post-prom planning.

He said he wanted the students to have an opportunity to "enjoy some of their last moments" in high school.

When this year's post-prom committee met for the first in November, maybe six to 10 parents attended, Yowler said.

"At that point a cruise or something like that was really the only thing we could possibly do," Yowler said. "Anything that would take more than 10 parents would be pretty tough."

Noted Yowler, with evident frustration: "CV has 680 juniors and seniors eligible to go to post-prom, and then you get 10 parents."

Next year, Yowler said, his son will be a junior, and he and his wife know many of the parents in their son's class. So they're hoping for a bigger turnout of post-prom volunteers.

Said Yowler: "Our intentions are to keep it going until our kids do get there."

Information from: Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era , lancasteronline.com

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