GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - Dayle Robinson's black Labrador, Bailey, could easily be Sopris Elementary School's favorite volunteer. Bailey, dressed up as a reindeer, accompanied Robinson and her husband, Bruce, to Mary Benson's classroom just before Christmas break to entertain students and help kids read.
On most days, a child chooses a book and goes out to the hall with Robinson to read to the dog. Bailey lies down next to the student and looks at the pages as the child reads.
Bailey also reads to the kids.
"Bailey reads cards," explained Robinson, who has volunteered at SES for five years. "If the card says 'sit,' she'll sit," Robinson said. "If it says 'lie down,' she'll lie down."
Elementary school volunteerism obviously has a new face in the 21st century, from a dog in the classroom to pajama parties to high school student mentors.
The High School Service Learning Program brings students from Glenwood Springs High School into both Sopris Elementary and Glenwood Springs Elementary.
"The high school students are assigned a class all year long," explained Kathy Whiting, SES principal. "The students are right there with the teacher, supporting instruction."
Whiting said high school students, who get credit for volunteering, are taught how to talk to elementary school kids, how to dress for the classroom, and the art and science of teaching.
"They develop close relationships with the kids," she said. "Some go on to be teachers."
About 50 adult volunteers also work at SES each day, depending on what's going on. Hands-on events such as Junior Chef Day and November's Plymouth Plantation Day, which features demonstrations of 17th century American crafts, attract all kinds of community volunteers.
"We had adults at every station and someone from the Frontier Historical Museum," recalled Whiting.
Some volunteers come in for one day to help with special events. Others, such as the Parents in Education or PIE, go on field trips, tutor math and reading in the classroom, help with fundraisers, or do special things for the teachers.
"They might surprise the teachers with coffee or bring a homemade lunch to a day-long conference," said Whiting.
The Parent Mentor program at SES, funded by the Manaus Foundation's Valley Settlement Program, brings parents into the classrooms to work with the kids and provide extra support.
"A Latino mom, for example, helps English-speaking students learn Spanish," said Whiting. After-school programs through ACCESS Roaring Fork allow parents to help out in the computer lab or with other classes.
Even the perennial birthday cupcake has gotten a make-over.
"The cupcake thing has morphed into let's-get-as-healthy-a-snack-as-we-can-get," said Whiting, describing the cheese stick brooms and hard-boiled egg eyeballs at October's Halloween carnival.
Jennifer Justice has been a volunteer at Glenwood Springs Elementary since her son Avery, now 12, was in kindergarten. She said the best thing about volunteering in the classroom is that it helps kids feel important. Plus, she knows who is with her children every day.
"You get to know who teachers are as people, and build trust," Justice said.
Justice, whose 7-year-old son Evan attends GSES, considers herself lucky because she doesn't have to work and can go on field trips with the school or attend class parties. Most parents, she said, have busy schedules that limit volunteer time.
"Most parents are on the go," agreed Jessica Stott, mother of two and co-president of the PTA at GSES. "Specifically at our school, mom and dad both are working and sometimes multiple jobs."
The PTA tries to remedy that by hosting after-school programs that involve parents, such as All Pro Dads and iMoms. Parents come with their children to improve communication. Stott said it also boosts kids' confidence.
"It's the coolest thing," she said.
When the group starts, the parents introduce themselves and their kids and give one reason why they're proud of their kids.
"Kids don't always hear that," said Stott. "Seeing the kids beam when they hear their parents say they're proud of them can make me cry."
These special evening events give working parents a way to participate. Parents help with homework or initiate difficult conversations about drugs or bullying.
Stott believes there is a definite need for structured time for parents and kids to talk.
"We get so busy and so caught up to maintain the status quo," she explained. "You don't always have that quiet time."
Dave Anson, assistant principal at GSES, said PTA volunteers and fundraisers are a big help to the school. Anson attended a Kids Night Out event on Dec. 21.
"Parents drop their kids off at GSES from 6 to 9 p.m. so they can go on a date or something," he explained. The parents pay a fee and the kids get to have a pajama party, complete with popcorn and a movie.
Stott said the event is a way to support families.
"Instead of selling stuff, the parents pay for a babysitting service," she said. Any kindergarten through fifth-grade student is welcome at Kids Night Out.
Other events this year included Pasta La Vista, Latino Voices, and a Halloween carnival at the Glenwood Springs Community Center with Sopris Elementary School. PTA proceeds provided seed money for a new playground planned for GSES.
Anson believes the presence of parents and community members enriches the school experience. And, volunteers are always needed, said Robinson, whose grandson Cooper is in second grade at Sopris Elementary School.
"Funds are so limited and it seems that our government spends money on things that aren't as important as the future of our children," Robinson said. "Even if people don't have a dog or aren't trained in education, they can be of service."