Working parents go beyond the tuckshop

Volunteer variety ... There are many ways to help out a school.
Volunteer variety ... There are many ways to help out a school. 

Working parents aren't always able to contribute to school life in the traditional ways, but there are other avenues, writes Jane Southward.

Christine Delamore wanted to be involved in her daughter's education so much that she reduced her hours in the family business when Lauren started prep at Firbank Grammar School in Melbourne.

“It would have been better for us financially if I kept working full-time but I thought it was important to get involved,” Ms Delamore said.

“You meet a lot of people by being involved in the school community. It's not just sausage sizzles and fund-raising. Some of the best people I volunteered with worked full-time. Many used their work expertise in marketing or financial matters to help out."

For 10 years she was on various parents' committees and now that Lauren is studying at university, Ms Delamore misses the regular contact with her school community. As executive officer of the Victorian Parents Council, which represents parents of students in non-government schools, she urges new parents to get involved as much as they can.

“My advice to working parents is to set your limits and choose a small project if you are worried about the time commitment,” she said.

“You may not be able to do something every week but there are plenty of one-off projects you can help with. There are welcoming morning teas, fund-raising committees, reports to work on, meetings to attend and sporting teams to manage.

“Many schools run meetings at night so that is better for working parents and it really helps you keep an eye on what's happening to your children socially and emotionally if you are involved. Plus you'll find your kids really appreciate it.”

The NSW Parents and Citizens Federation president, Helen Walton, who lives in Broken Hill, agrees and says schools couldn't function without volunteers.

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“We have no definitive numbers or value for the work parents contribute to schools but it's huge,” Ms Walton said.

“It's important parents know that parents and citizens groups accept volunteer work in any form. It isn't just tuckshop duty."

This includes covering library books, setting up for a barbecue or fete, helping children in reading groups and running sporting teams.

“More and more of our parents are busy and working full-time," Ms Walton says.

"And more and more parents are using their professional skills to help their children's school to improve things such as someone in the media might help promote an event, another might help the school P&C with their website, another might help with fund-raising."

A Sydney marketing manager, Alex Paton, says he enjoys being involved in his three sons' school and has held various volunteer roles within the Broken Bay Catholic diocese. He and his wife, Ann, now share the role as secretary of the St Aloysius College Parents and Friends Association.

“Fund-raising is always a difficult thing to do," Mr Paton says.

"You have to understand that parents have a finite amount of money they can donate and it's the same with their time.

“But there are lots of things parents can do to help out and it doesn't matter if you work part-time or full-time. I've been lucky because my employer [engineering firm Sinclair Knight Merz] hasn't minded that I take time to help out at school.”

As for the politics of school committees, he acknowledged that “sometimes parents have different agendas and things can get feisty”.

“I used to start meetings with a picture of the children from the school in front of me to remind everyone that we were there because of the children and that volunteering isn't about social groups or internal agendas,” he said.

One of the largest national school volunteer programs, chef Stephanie Alexander's Kitchen Garden program, relies heavily on volunteers. The program is now in 250 schools, teaching 20,000 children how to grow, harvest, prepare and share fresh, seasonal food.

Students work in small groups supervised by specialist staff, their classroom teacher and community volunteers. To volunteer you need a passion for cooking or gardening or both and an interest in working with children.

How do you contribute to your child's school? Are any of your professional skills put to use? Comment on the Essential Kids Forums.

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