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Schools Ask Where Have All the Volunteers Gone?

Published in ChicagoNow, November 30, 2015

Schools seem to be struggling much more than in the past to find volunteers. With my deepest apologies to Pete Seeger, something has seemed to have “picked them, everyone.”

For the past few years, the administrators of the preschool I founded have been telling me things are different these days. When the school started back in 1992, it happened largely through the efforts of a vast network of volunteers. Parents did everything from fundraising to painting the walls to building a ramp to finding and fixing used toys. Now, they are struggling to come up with enough parents to work on the annual spring fundraiser.

Certainly, times have changed over the past 23 years. When we started the school, there was still a decent supply of parents (usually but not always women) who were home with their young children or working part time. These parents had lots of talent and energy, but more importantly, they had three gifts that distinguished them from current parents of school children.

1) Time: Judging from my own children’s lives today as young parents, it is clear that time is a scarce commodity. In all three of my children’s families, both parents work to provide a basic middle-class life for their kids. When parents are home, it is family time. Even then, my grandkids have homework and activities that eat into the few hours they spend with their parents. There is simply not much time in their lives to attend a PTA meeting or volunteer to organize a school-wide event.

Parents today scramble to cover the necessary things – parent-teacher conferences, school performances, carpooling to activities, and anything that directly involves their children. The gift of time that enabled me to help out at my children’s schools and enabled a small army of volunteers to create a preschool seems to have vanished. So yes, that’s one explanation for scarcity of school volunteers.

2) Middle class lifestyles: We have heard endlessly about growing economic disparity and the impact of all of the money flowing to the top two percent. The middle class is shrinking. Perhaps this is a second explanation for the smaller pool of volunteers dedicated to supporting school activities. Those with the means often chose to make generous financial contributions in lieu of volunteering. Those struggling to feed and clothe their children can’t devote much energy to making sure the school carnival is staffed.

The folks who traditionally helped out couldn’t afford to donate much money but their lives were together enough to enable them to organize a fundraiser. With fewer of these families and a greater need to watch the bottom line, you aren’t going to sell a ton of gift-wrap these days.

3) Actual vs. online communities: These days, the actual school community may take a back seat to the myriad of virtual communities in people’s lives. Before every cause or interest had a Facebook page, people needing to reach out to others had to literally be present. Schools didn’t have websites. If you wanted to feel a sense of belonging, you needed to show up and work with others.

This type of social engagement is no longer the only way to feel connected. These days, it is more typical for parents to support their causes online. Schools have become another thing parents do for their children. They send their kids to school to learn, but get their adult needs for belonging and connection met elsewhere. In the case of private schools and preschools, parents see the school more like a service for which they pay because it’s important for their child. Thus, a third reason for the parent volunteer drought is the lessening need for the school to be an important adult community.

The dwindling number of volunteers is a serious dilemma for schools. For example, when my children attended elementary school I was in charge of the school bookstore. I had no problem finding a co-chair and a reliable group of parent volunteers to staff it. We kept it open once a week for the whole school day and were able to sell both low-cost new paperbacks and used books. There were enough parents there to ensure every child had help finding an appropriate book.

Fast-forward a generation. Same school but a very different experience for the kids. It’s a struggle to find a volunteer chair to run the bookstore. No one has the time to order new books or even collect used ones. There are not enough parent volunteers to keep it for open more once a month for part of the day. Now the kids can only trade books for other books already on hand.

The solution to the dearth of school volunteers may require some thinking outside the box. Those much-needed volunteers may be out there in the community rather than in the traditional pool of parents of school children. Perhaps retirees or college students could fill in some of the gaps. Maybe the folks who ran the preschool auction many years ago have the time and interest to chair it again.

Our schools still need volunteers. The shrinking numbers of parents who are able to help are shouldering a large burden these days. Too often, people forget to thank them for all they do. So, I’ll give them a shout out here. But I’ll also not judge those parents who, for a variety of reasons, just don’t have the time, energy, or resources to raise their hands.


by Laurie Levy
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