Why I Volunteer

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Even at 40 years old, I still get scared. Driving out of town to a place I have never been before, going to exercise class for the first time, even flying on airplanes can give me a little anxiety. I say things to myself like:

  • You’re going to get lost.
  • You’re going to look stupid.
  • This plane could go down and there are still wet clothes in the washing machine.

But when my kids are scared I hear myself say things like:

  • This is an adventure!
  • You’ll make new friends!
  • Flying is safer than driving!

I know the right things to say to help them be brave, but I don’t say those things to myself.

The first time I volunteered to help with a PTA function, I was nervous. I had offered to help mount artwork for the Reflections program, only to find out the other volunteers were getting together at 11 a.m. at the school (But I work fulltime downtown?!).

I felt I couldn’t back out so I used vacation time. I got my orange “Volunteer” sticker at the office and met the other volunteers for the first time. They showed me where the PTA room was and we worked together for a couple of hours marveling at the little masterpieces. I remember finding my daughter’s painting in a pile with other kindergarten pieces and taping it to black paper. It was a fun day.

A few months later, I decided I would give volunteering another try. I showed up at the spring Carnival (not knowing anyone) and I was assigned to the cash register at the concessions table. I had worked the cash register one time as an employee at Bed, Bath & Beyond and I was a disaster (they kept me in the bedding department after that).

The cash register should have been the worst assignment at the PTA event. Except it wasn’t. Instead, I stood around and chatted with other moms and we all laughed every time I had to do math in my head and tried to count change. I made a lot of mistakes. But no one said I was stupid and they didn’t audit my register. People even thanked me for volunteering. After that, I knew I could do anything.

Fast forward five years and I still volunteer at most PTA events. And now that my kids are older, they always come with me. I still work full time, but I look forward to volunteering in the evening and on the weekends because I know I can bring my kids with me. I don’t have to sacrifice time with them in order to be involved at their school. And they can help too! (Or they can at least run around the cafeteria with their friends while the moms and dads are working.) Most importantly, I have made a lot of friends and my kids are friends with their kids.

If you have never volunteered for PTA, know this: It’s an adventure and you’ll make new friends! The wet clothes in the washing machine can wait.


Heather Zirke is the president of Grindstone PTA and mom to Aurelia, a fourth grader, and Kip, a second grader.

Tips You Need to Keep Kids Safe Online

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Keeping your kids safe in the age of continuous internet access and social media is tougher than ever these days. My wife and I work in information security, but even we struggle to keep up with evolving technology, so staying safe online is a frequent dinner topic in our family.

With new websites and apps coming out every day, it’s easy to see how parents can feel a little overwhelmed. So what can you do to keep your kids safe? The biggest step is to start with a conversation. And the good news is, there’s an online tool to help!

The Smart Talk is a fun and simple way to develop tech ground rules with your kids. Developed by LifeLock and the National PTA, the interactive website enables families to create personalized technology ground rules together by discussing key online safety topics. These include safety and privacy, screen time, apps and downloads, texting and calling and social media and respect.

After agreeing on healthy limits together, your family will end up with a personalized and official family agreement that you can print, sign and post in your home for quick reference and revise throughout the year.

Our family recently had The Smart Talk, and there were many lessons learned all-around. Here are a few tips that may come handy when you have a safety tech talk with your kids.

Tip 1: Talk, don’t lecture

Lecturing kids about online security works about as well as lecturing them about putting their socks away. They just tune out, hearing only, “Blah blah Internet blah blah chatrooms.” But when you’re able to have an actual conversation with your kids, and get on their level, they can begin relating what they do online and what their friends do online to the issues they hear about in the news.

Tip 2: Help your kids understand that the internet is not private

This false sense of privacy can lure kids into revealing far more than they should, with potentially devastating results (such as harassment and bullying, possibly even leading to assaults and suicide). Talk to your kids about what privacy means and remind them that anything shared over the internet or over a smartphone has the potential to be made public. Tell them:

  • Social media accounts can be seen by others
  • Text messages and “selfies” can be copied, forwarded and shared
  • Information can be accessed on an unlocked device or broken into and posted freely on the internet
  • Location data, commonly made available by devices, can reveal where the photos were taken or where they are located at that moment

Tip 3: Treat safety in the digital world the same as safety in the real world

When our kids are online, they’re connected with the entire world. Would you let your kids bring home random people off the street or from the shopping mall? Into your home, into their rooms? Of course not. Similar to how you teach your child to be self-aware in a mall, movie theater or amusement park—your kids need to learn safe behaviors in the online world.

Tip 4: Help your kids understand that anyone can pretend to be anything on the internet

With social media, video game chatrooms and other remote chat tools, strangers can become familiar, even though your child has never actually met them. Kids need to understand that people they meet online could be someone other than who they say they are. Teach your kids that unless you’ve met someone in person, they are a stranger. Any time a stranger attempts to convince your child to meet up unsupervised or share private information, your child should assume that’s not a nice or safe person.

Bring this lesson to life with a game: Ask your kid to list all of the things an alligator would say to convince a duck that they should meet up in the swamp at night. Then, connect the alligator’s motivations with a fraudster online that is trying to lure your kid into sharing information. It sounds silly, but such a game can help drive the point home.

Tip 5: Sharing is good until you share too much

You’ve seen the websites and apps that ask you to share your name, home address, age, birthdate, phone number and more. Kids grow up learning that sharing is caring, but what happens when sharing information could leave your kid vulnerable to identity theft?

When it comes to sharing sensitive information, teach your kids that the best answer is no answer. Your kids should also know that a majority of sites don’t need all of your sensitive information. Most times you don’t need to add all your private information. Have your child use their favorite movie character as their name and profile pic. Children are clever, creative and motivated. Give them a nudge and they’ll take it from there.

Remind your kids that their friends need to be safe online too. Kids are stronger when they’re looking out for each other, when they understand the problems and have a mindset to protect themselves.

Visit TheSmartTalk.org to learn more about having a conversation about these key ways to stay safe online.


Joe Gervais is the father of five children and the security communications director at LifeLock.

Honoring Jan by Honoring Diversity and Inclusion

At the end of February, we lost a tireless advocate for this association, but most especially someone who had devoted her life to making the world a better place for our children. During its March meeting, the National PTA Board of Directors approved the recommendation of the Diversity Committee to name an award focused on diversity and inclusion for Jan Harp Domene. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could be more fitting. Jan had a deep seeded passion for ensuring that everyone was included and treated with respect and fairness. She was someone who did not just ‘talk the talk’ – no, Jan did much more; she ‘walked the walk.’

You have recently had the opportunity to read about her many accomplishments, as well as her contributions as our National PTA President, 2007-2009. What I want to offer is some insight into Jan as a person worth knowing, as well as to Jan my friend.

I first met Jan when she served as NPTA Secretary-Treasurer during Linda Hodges’ administration (2003-2005). As Tennessee PTA president, I had the chance to work with her on a number of occasions and even had the good luck to have her serve as Nat Rep to one of our conventions. What I remember best about those first interactions is Jan’s warmth and sense of humor. Being around Jan could be such fun!

In the years that followed, our relationship grew from mere acquaintances to one of complete friendship. We traveled together, roomed together on occasion, sat up late into the night sharing our lives – in essence we shared a special bond, a deep friendship. There is something so remarkable about a person who can at once lead an association such as ours and also sit with you deep into the night to share all your secrets. But that was Jan!

More than that, Jan taught me many things about what it means to be a leader. It was her passion to ensure that the National PTA Board began to reflect the children and families of this country. Jan showed me that diversity does not just happen – we must work to make it happen. With each appointment to the Board and to committees, she made a conscience choice to guarantee that we would begin to set a standard for others to follow. It left an indelible mark on how I would choose to lead in the future.

When I got the call that Jan had died, I was speechless, shocked – it had to be a mistake. Her husband, Greg, asked if I could share some thoughts about Jan at her memorial. To say that it was one of the toughest things I have ever done would be an understatement. How do you sum up such a special gift as Jan in just a few minutes? Here are the words I shared at the memorial:

To know Jan meant so many things — above all was her love and devotion to Greg and her family — and her passion for her work.

Jan never went in to anything unless it was to succeed. She did not know the word “failure.” She could be a tough task master in the very best way — especially, when it came to PTA — and her passion for its ideals, and for our work.

Yet, she could be extremely thoughtful, especially in the way she could remember the little things.

In early December, we were able to spend one of those ‘perfect’ days together. We went to Newport Beach to have lunch and shop – it had been such a long, long time since we were able to spend that kind of time together. In the evening, we went to dinner at a favorite restaurant, Lin Chin’s, with Greg, Kris, Cali, her favorite niece, and friends – the family. And I was part of the family – we had such an incredible time — food, fun and laughter — it was quintessential Jan!

As she took me to the airport the next morning, she gave me an early Christmas gift – a Lenox china star, which reads ‘Believe.’ Jan believed in her family, in her mission as an advocate for children…..Jan believed in me.

I want to share her note with you, because it is so ‘her’ – “Remember we have a whole country of children depending on us and the work we do. Stay focused on them — and always believe in yourself. I am always here for you….Whatever!”

Her legacy is in the family that she loved ….in her California roots….it is in her tireless devotion to every child in this nation. Jan served as our National PTA President – one of only handful of individuals that have ever held that honor. She has left an indelible mark on an association that would not have been the same without her leadership.

Jan believed in the ‘all’ – not just the ‘one.’ She believed in the ‘end’ — not just the ‘beginning.’

Most of all, she showed us the value of a “single” life and how important each one of us truly can be in making a difference.

Our memories of the people we have loved are truly how we keep them alive. I have wonderful memories of Jan – our friendship wasn’t always smooth, but that is what made it all the richer. She was in many ways the big sister I never had – as I was part of her family, she was part ours. Mary Frances’s wedding would not have been the same with her and Greg!

It would mean the world to Jan to know that she will be remembered to future generations of PTA leaders and members through this award.

My friend, Jan, made a difference to me – much more importantly, she made a difference in PTA that will only continue to enrich and grow our association until we finally are truly reflective of the children and families that we choose to serve. Just as she dreamed!

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!”

A Successful Event for Families during Take Your Family to School Week

Editor’s note: Below is a note from two local PTA leaders in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, about their Take Your Family to School Week event. Their PTA was one of 45 PTAs to receive a Take Your Family to School Week grant of $1,000.

Northrop PTSA is incredibly tired today :-), but we wanted to share the link to the pictures from our event last night. It was incredible! The event was more than we could ever have expected.

We believe the actual count for attendance is around 600 people. We had 38 tables in our common area for businesses, colleges and organizations and 12 parent round table discussions ranging from legislation and advocacy by Indiana PTA. The scholarships and financial aid information and discussion were very popular. There was also great information about preparing for college, graduation requirements, and the Indiana Department of Education sent a representative to talk about the common core state standards.

Check out these pictures at this link below. They really tell the story of our event: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.297213710342704.73912.184820444915365&type=3.

We can’t thank National PTA and the AXA Foundation enough for making this happen with the Take Your Family to School Week grant. We couldn’t have done it without the grant. The AXA Foundation is the philanthropic arm of AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company, and a Proud National Sponsor of PTA.

The funny part is that as soon as it was over the first comment made was, “We’re going to have to expand the area for next year!” It wasn’t a question of if we would do it again… we are already planning! Happy Take Your Family to School Week!

Kathie Green & Theresa Distelrath
Northrop PTSA Co-Presidents

My Inspirational Visit to a Local PTA for Take Your Family to School Week

I was so excited to represent National PTA as a member of the National PTA Board of Directors at a local event in honor of Take Your Family School Week. I went to Norco Elementary in Norco, California to participate in their event and present them a “big” check because they were one of 45 PTAs to receive a Take Your Family to School Week grant of $1,000.

What an amazing visit to Norco Elementary! I was amazing to see the turnout of parents. I drove two hours through heavy rain thinking that few parents would turn out… but not so. The event was supposed to be a picnic with parents, teachers, the principal and students. However, the rain caused us to move the picnic inside the cafeteria which could not hold more than one grade at a time, so each grade took turns in the picnic.

We started with the first grade class and there were many parents eating with their children. Almost every grade level had as many parents for the picnic. Sandy Ramirez, 23rd District PTA President, participated in the “big” check presentation during the third grade picnic.

In addition to mothers and grandparents, there were so many fathers taking time to be with their children. It truly was a great turnout of parents.

Norco Elementary is nestled in a horse ranch community with a diverse community of students. Amy Shainman, the school principal is wonderful! It’s no wonder the school has the support it has of the PTA and parents. I observed her interaction with parents and students and she was so caring and warm.

I wish we had pictures to share but, Kathleen Camarillo, the PTA parent who wrote and submitted the grant application, will forward the pictures of the event to us and we’ll post them then.

We did have heavy rains all day but the sun is out again in sunny California. I have lots of snow in the mountains near my home… What an inspirational experience!

Betsy’s Holiday Thoughts

For the last few years, our daughter, Mary Frances, has created a family calendar with photos. The project began as a way to help my mother, who suffers from Alzhiemer’s disease, remember her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Each of us, however, has found that the calendar serves as a reminder to us all of our connection and how we would be different people without it.

At this time of year, we all tend to reflect on family and our precious connections to each other. Family is more than those we are related to by birth or choice. It extends to an ever-widening circle of close friends and colleagues—all those who touch our lives in a meaningful way. PTA is a family. We share not just a vital mission, but also a passion to make the world a better place for our children. That passion and our commitment binds us together as a family, and, yes, it can influence who we are as people.

As long as I have been a part of PTA—and that is a rather long time—I have been told how we are, in every sense of the word, family. With any family, there are ups and downs, but there is also an indivisible connection. Our work on behalf of those who have no voice will never be done, but working in harmony, we will steadily move forward to ensure the best for every child.

As I reflect this holiday season on the blessings in my life, I am thankful for my PTA family. We come in all shapes and sizes, speak many different languages, and uphold diverse traditions, but our connection is very real. It is embodied in a child. Whether it is your child, my child or the child of a complete stranger, we share a commitment to that child—to all children. Each of you in ways both large and small have shaped my life and made it richer. Your commitment and passion are my daily inspiration.

Yes, we are indeed family and our PTA family, 5 million strong, will continue to change the world.

May each of you enjoy the comfort and blessings of your family this holiday season!

Thanksgiving

There is a crisp breeze coming through my windows today, and the last ofleaves are slowing drifting off the trees……autumn is most certainly here. This is most definitely my favorite time of the year! Harvest season, and especially Thanksgiving, holds special childhood memories for me. Growing up as the daughter of an Arkansas farmer, I learned a greater appreciation for this time of the year. On many a Thanksgiving holidays, my father left the table to return to the field—there were soybeans yet to harvest.  At our Thanksgiving table, we gave thanks not only for our family, but also for a bountiful harvest.

During the next few days, as you reflect on your many blessings, I have a question for you to consider. Are we thankful for our beloved association, for PTA? Our families are what we are most thankful for, of course, but in our everyday lives, we each volunteer a good deal of time and energy to the causes of education, our communities’ schools, and PTA.

Are we thankful for PTA?

Are we thankful for the dream of a few to make a significant difference in the welfare of this nation’s children in a time when women did not even have the right to vote? The National Congress of Mothers put into motion an organization that 115 years later is recognized as the largest volunteer child advocacy association in the United States. We have a rich heritage of advocacy and more importantly, a history of success.

Today, our voice is 5 million strong. We are active in the halls in Congress and in state houses across this country. We can be found at school board and community meetings raising our voices on behalf of those who have no voice. But are we thankful?

There is a quote that perfectly sums up how I feel about this incredible association. It is one that most of you are very familiar with: “A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove….but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.” Making a difference for our children—all children—deeply matters to me, and PTA has given me the training, support, and opportunities to fulfill my passion. Am I thankful for PTA? Most definitely!

Over the next few days and weeks as we are busy with holiday preparations, let us give real thought to why we believe in this association. Please take a few moments out of your busy schedule and put those thoughts into words. It is important that as we count our many blessings, we remember to think about the intangible things in our lives that make a difference.  PTA makes a difference each and every day, and you drive the possibility of that difference!

May you and your families enjoy a bountiful Thanksgiving! You are a blessing to the millions of children across this nation and around the world.

Never forget—you are their voice.

In my life, I loved you more…

Rosita and Papa

Throughout my childhood my father always told my siblings and I, “When I die, I won’t be leaving you money, because we’re not rich. The only thing I can give you that you will have forever is an education.” My dad was right – when he passed, no lawyer came up to let us know he left millions in inheritance. However, he did keep true to his word and provided us all with the opportunity to pursue higher education.

My parents are extremely intelligent, both with a Masters in Chemistry, and my mother even has a second Masters in Education Administration. The importance of education was always stressed in my home. Even with working full-time jobs and taking classes at night (ESL when they first arrived in this country and later graduate courses), my parents always stayed up to help with homework or projects. And my parents didn’t only strive to educate us, but others as well. After they retired, they both taught ESL classes to bilingual parents in the community. We always knew that education was a big deal to our folks, but my dad was wrong in saying that education is the only thing he would leave us.

This past week was the hardest week of our lives. What got us through it was remembering all the things my dad, or as we called him, “Papá”, left us. We talked as a family about what each of us siblings had inherited from Papá. We decided my brother Carlos, the oldest, inherited Papá’s sense of humor. My dad was always cracking corny jokes and being a goofball. My sister Liz got his love of dancing. At any party they attended, my parents were always the first people on the dance floor, and they were always the last ones to leave. I got his taste in music. On the weekends, Papá and I would sit together in the living room and listen to the Beatles and other oldies music, which I still prefer to listen to over any music that’s playing on a Top-40 station. Gloria, the youngest, inherited his temper and strength. My dad had a pretty scary temper, but to this day he is the strongest person I know and it’s a strength I see in my little sister.

Papá left us so much – memories, funny stories, and words of wisdom. I’ll never forget what he said when I told him I was taking a job with the National PTA and would be moving from our hometown of Joliet, Ill., to Chicago. He said, “Mija, I gave you all wings so that you could fly.”

Papá, we will miss you so much. Thank you so much for giving your children and so many others the gift of education – a gift that is much more valuable than money. You also left a bit of you in each of your children. You will always be in our hearts.

Please join me in supporting PTA’s Million Hours of Power campaign to encourage more men to get involved and support the education of their children. Vote at Pepsi Refresh Project.

– Rosa Vivanco is Programs & Partnerships Coordinator for PTA.  Her mother, Liduvina, resides in Minooka, IL  along with her two sisters and niece, Lily. Minooka is near Rosa’s hometown of Joliet, IL  where her brother and his family live.

What Do You Consider As Justice?

What Do You Consider As Justice?

Recently a local prosecutor in Detroit Michigan made news by proposing a law that would have legal repercussions for parents who do not take part in such activities as parent teacher conferences. Now, I’ll admit that her proposal would probably be for those parents who are the worst offenders, but really? In California, a state Senate bill has recently passed a committee vote that lays out a series of punishments for the same lack of action by parents, in simple terms, not attending parent teacher conference and/or allowing their students to go un-supervised.

These two suggested pieces of legislation has our media outlets buzzing and educational leaders wondering where did this all came from? And the question is valid, where is this coming from?

PTA has long been an advocate for parent engagement. Parents, grand-parents, adult care givers should all be active participants in a child’s educational experience. These political recommendations should give us a great opportunity to both discuss options for getting adults engaged and why some elected officials find it necessary to impose legislation for parent involvement with a hammer versus identify more positive solutions.

One example of a positive plan for parent engagement is the Parent Engagement in Education Act, HR5211. This legislation helps schools and school districts develop best practices for parent engagement, it’s that simple!

When I was in school, Dad worked and Mom volunteered at my school. Today, both parents work and in many cases more than one job each. Many parents don’t have the time today that they had in years past, so PTA must work harder and longer to help encourage any caring adult to spend time in their local school.

Although I do not agree with negatitive legislation that seems to force a parent’s involvement, the concern is real. PTA must work to see that our parents, elected officials and the public in general understand that there are more positive solutions to addressing these concerns.

For more parental involvement tips and helpful guides, please visit http://www.pta.org/topic_parent_involvement.asp