My Americorp Experience with National PTA

Last week was “Americorps Week”, celebrating alum and members doing service across the country. Many people may not be aware of what Americorps is, let alone how it relates to PTA. I like to sum it up by saying that Americorps is like the domestic Peace Corps. We volunteer to serve for a year with a nonprofit or government agency, aiding communities in areas such as education, health, and economic development. I came to National PTA to support the Urban Development department and to accomplish work for the Connect for Respect Anti-Bullying Initiative in the local area schools. Before coming to National PTA, I had no idea how many facets of the organization  existed or how much PTA had done for children advocacy. As a VISTA, which is a branch of Americorps, I am especially focused on eliminating the achievement gaps that affect those living in poverty. In order to give volunteers a true understanding of poverty, VISTAs are only given a modest living stipend which is equal to the poverty level in the area they serve. Many of us, myself included, utilize food stamps and share housing to cut expenses. I can’t afford much, and I do get judging looks in grocery store lines when I pull out my EBT card, but I still feel that the experience has been an upgrade more than a hardship. I was one of the many displaced college graduates of the last several years. I graduated with honors, student debt, and a deluded optimism about job prospects. I found full-time work in the area of my business degree, and made an hourly wage of eight dollars with no benefits. I moved back in with my parents, sold my belongings on eBay, and painted furniture for extra cash. Feeling unfulfilled and underutilized, I started volunteering with a crisis hotline to give my life more meaning. I had heard good things about Americorps and after much deliberation, I applied for a position at National PTA. Within two months, I was relocating for my year of service. I am now embarking on my fifth month of service with National PTA, and so far I have loved it. Contributing to the mission of Connect for Respect, to eliminate bullying, is something I am passionate about. I feel that I am very fortunate to have found a service project that I personally believe in, and an organization that supports it. I have also had opportunities to travel to Queens, NY and Las Vegas, NV to work with their UFEI teams. I have met more people and gained more new experiences from Americorps than I ever would have been able to on my own. I am excited to see where the remainder of my service takes me and how my service will impact the community.

Erin Thwaites | AmeriCorps VISTA

The PTA Dad: Adventures in Unfamiliar Territory

Jay Jefferson, PTA President. These are words that I truly thought would never be associated with me. But as the saying goes, “never say never.” So how did this Dad become the leader of a PTA traditionally dominated by Moms, you ask? We’ll that’s a very interesting story that has a few twists and turns. But, here is the short version of my adventures thus far, and the lessons I have learned along the way.

After having relocated to Miami from New York City with my wife and two young children, I was eager to connect with my new community. My daughter entered Kindergarten at Carver Elementary this academic year, so my wife and I wanted to get involved our school’s PTA. We made our interest known to the “then” incoming PTA President, who informed us of two recent vacancies on the Board. We jumped at the opportunity, and agreed to join. My wife became the Vice President of Membership, and I the Board’s Secretary. Yep, Secretary -another position not commonly dominated by Dads. But since my primary interest was really to work on revamping the PTA’s outdated website, I was told that serving as Secretary would assist me in my efforts. Ok, I jokingly thought to myself, “I’m breaking the glass ceiling for all future Dads who aspire to be PTA Secretary.” Further bolstering my confidence, I proclaimed with Dad-like bravado, “I got this…no problem!”

When school began in late August, I proudly assumed my new role at our daughter’s school. After a week or so of introducing myself as the PTA Secretary to fellow parents, school teachers and administrators -the majority of whom are women- I became aware that I might have a problem. Not only had these individuals never encountered a male PTA Secretary, but they had rarely seen a Dad take an active role in school -period. Apparently, all of this was as new to them as it was to me.

Yet, instead of retreating to the background to avoid the awkward stares -which I admit I thought long and hard about doing- I decided to flip the script, and draw more attention to myself. Yeah, counter institutive, I know. But since I was already in the position, I thought I should let my role as Secretary make it less awkward for other Dads to engage with their children at school. And as I jokingly explained to all that gave me that initial look of disbelief after I would introduce myself, “The name of the organization is Parent-Teacher Association, and Dads are parents too.”

After a couple of months, the shock and awe surrounding my role as Secretary waned. My relationship with fellow parents, school teachers and administrators -again, the majority of whom are women – grew better as I allowed my actions to speak for themselves. I had initiated a new weekly PTA newsletter that I would personally edit and print, then have distributed to every parent via our school’s weekly communicator folders. Additionally, I began updating the content to the PTA’s existing website, with a focus of posting more event recaps and photos depicting all the wonderful activities taking place at the school. In doing so, I realized that I was often times the only Dad involved at many of these events. A fact I took personal since I had endured a few months of “Mr. Secretary” jokes and humorous references. What had gone wrong with my plan to have other Dads join me in my quest for equality in parent-child engagement at school? I felt truly defeated.

At that very time, the “then” PTA President decided to withdraw her child from the school, and vacate her position on the Board. In hindsight, I can now say this presumably bad situation presented a good opportunity. I was asked by the remaining Board members to become President, and this recommendation was endorsed by the teachers and administrators. Again, I thought long and hard about the challenges of assuming this new role, especially since I had just started to settle into my old role. Ultimately, I said yes, and my nomination was approved by the remaining Board members, the teacher and administrators as well as the Florida State PTA. I quickly went to work repairing and improving relationships with the teachers and administrators. Additionally, I initiated a rebranding campaign to reinforce the mission of the organization as serving to benefit every child at Carver Elementary by working to ensure they receive the best possible education. I reached out to a cross section of parents and guardians to join the new PTA Team I was building -successfully recruiting six new Committee Chairs. We have since received numerous accolades for the many activities and events we have hosted. In my few months as President, the new PTA Team and I have in the words of one teacher, “brought new life to the school through our positive energy and passion.” Yes, we’ve made great progress, but still have much more work to do -with one of my highest priorities being to encourage other Dads to participate in the PTA, and become active at school. I cherish the fact my daughter knows I love her so much that I want to be involved in her school. I especially like the twinkle in her eye when she says to her classmates, “My Dad is the PTA President.” For that, all the hard work is worth it!

So what have I discovered in my adventures thus far? Well, I’ve learned that there are times when you choose the situation with which to become involved, and then there are times when the situation chooses you. As a PTA Dad, I have learned to embrace both. Furthermore, my quest for equality in parent-child engagement at school will be won one Dad at a time -but we will get there. “I got this…no problem!”