by Ardeana Hamlin
of The Weekly Staff
BANGOR, Maine — Volunteers have been making a difference at Fairmount School for many years. Music teacher Jim Paton, who has been at the school for 30 years, and Vickie Levesque, gifted and talented program teacher, who has been at the school for 28 years, agree that the help of volunteers in the school is invaluable.
Volunteers, Paton and Levesque said, serve as chaperones on school field trips, assist teachers in the classroom, listen to students read, type the pages for the fifth-graders’ annual in-school magazine, plant and maintain school flower beds, build stage sets, come up with costumes and choreography for the school’s annual spring musical program, staff the school store and reshelve library books.
Volunteers, through the school’s Parent-Teacher Organization, also organize an annual spaghetti supper to raise funds for items not covered by the school budget.
Principal Ryan Enman said, “We love to have them. Ours are very dependable volunteers; they make a commitment and they show up.” This year the school has approximately 38 volunteers. Enman said that school volunteers are most frequently parents who are there while their children attend the school, though many, including Nan Steele of Bangor, often continue to volunteer after their children have gone on to other schools in the city.
Steele has volunteered at the school once or twice a week for 24 years. She and her husband, Dr. Erik Steele, moved to Bangor when he was a resident at Eastern Maine Medical Center. “Our kids went into the school system, and I followed them,” Steele said. The volunteering, she said, was “fairly selfish on my part; I was having so much fun. Kids sometimes make more sense to me than grownups do.”
Steele’s volunteer days have centered in teacher Vicki Levesque’s classroom of fourth- and fifth-graders, As a volunteer, Steele conferences with students on essays and other things they have written.
“Nan is so wonderful with the kids,” said Vicki Levesque. “Students respect her. She’s gentle and warm, and I have no doubt that the information she brings to the classroom is the same as what I bring. And she brings me chocolate.”
“Nan is reliable to the Nth degree,” said Jim Paton. “If she sees a child in need, she is there.”
But Steele’s days of volunteering at Fairmount are at an end. The Steeles will leave Bangor this summer when Erik takes the position of chief medical officer at Summa Health Care Systems in Akron, Ohio. Nan said it will be difficult to leave the many people she met as a result of volunteering, and though the connection of having her two daughters, now grown up, in the school system.
Steele also, over the years, volunteered at Vine Street School, the James Doughty School and other Bangor schools.
But she is in no hurry to leave Bangor, or Fairmount School. “The staff there is phenomenal. I will miss the people there, and the kids’ energy. I absorb a lot of energy from the kids. At that age they think adults are still cool,” she said..
“There is so much they want to chatter about. I always wish I had more time to talk with them outside the classroom,” Steele said.
When asked what advice she’d give those contemplating volunteering at a school, she said, “Everybody has something they can give even if they think they don’t. When the world seemed messed up a child’s perspective kept me grounded lots of times.
“Working with teachers who do this day after day, year after year: I learned a lot of patience,” Steele said. “If you have time to give, you won’t regret it. There’s something for everyone, teachers to connect with, creative fish costumes to be made [she once sewed four].
“If you want to make a difference, a school is the place to do it. I firmly believe that. I’ve already checked to see if the public schools in Akron take volunteers, and they do,” she said.
Barbara Reynolds has volunteered at the school for 20 years. She assists Jim Paton with the school’s Spring Concert each May by teaching dance steps to fifth-graders who volunteer to learn a dance routine for the show.
“I teach a simple dance routine,” Reynolds said. “It’s fun. Sometimes it’s canes and top hats. This year it was the jitterbug. Kids love to do that. They got pretty good at it.”
She also volunteers in the same capacity at Mary Snow School. “I used to dance … it’s nice to see the kids enjoy it,” she said. She plans to continue volunteering.
Tina McLaughlin has been a volunteer as part of the school’s PTO for approximately 12 years. “What I do is get things together for the spaghetti dinner in the fall. I get the donations for it,” she said.
She also organizes a fall fundraiser and a spring fair through the PTO. Money raised from those events have, in past years, bought a flagpole for the school and computerized Promethium boards for classrooms (the modern-day equivalent of the chalk board), and funded a cookout for Teacher Appreciation Week in May.
McLaughlin said the idea behind the establishment of the school’s annual spaghetti supper was to bring families together so that parents, students and teachers could get to know one another better.
“The smiles are what I like,” she said of volunteering. “[Volunteering] shows that parents can help — and makes children feel more comfortable and more excited about their education. We reach out and try to raise funds to make good things happen at schools and in the community. “
Those who wish to volunteer at schools in Bangor, including Fairmount, must go through a general training session that takes approximately an hour, in which they learn about the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, school procedures and what volunteer opportunities are available at the school, Enman said. Volunteers must attend the training session annually. A background check of each volunteer also is conducted.
For information about volunteering in Bangor schools, go to bangorschools.net.