'Start small, but just start:' How PTA involvement makes a difference
Posted September 11
Julie von Haefen is busy.
The mom of three - ages 7, 10 and 11, is a Girl Scout leader, a Wake County Meals on Wheels volunteer and involved with activities at her church, St. Andrew the Apostle in Apex. But her biggest commitment is with the PTA - at the school, county and state level.
Von Haefen, who lives in Apex with her kids and husband, has served in leadership positions on the PTA at Washington GT Magnet Elementary School in Raleigh. She also is active with the Wake County PTA Council and the North Carolina PTA. She worked as a lawyer before becoming a stay-at-home mom in 2004 when her oldest child was born.
Now that we're a couple of weeks into the (traditional) school year, I thought I'd ask von Haefen some questions about her PTA experience, the important role PTAs play in local schools and why we should all help out. Here's our email conversation:
Go Ask Mom: How long have you been involved in a PTA and what schools? Did you always plan on serving on the PTA or was it something you kind of fell into?
Julie von Haefen: I have been involved with PTA for seven years, since my oldest son started kindergarten at Washington Elementary School in Raleigh. I started out volunteering in the media center and was a room parent. I became involved in PTA originally to meet other parents and to feel connected to my kids' school. It was a great way to get to know the teachers and staff that would be working with and teaching my children every day.
After I became involved, it was clear to me that the PTA made a huge difference at the school - from fundraising to the programming. It was a vital part of the school community. I wanted to be a part of that in a bigger way, so I became more involved as time went on and my other kids began attending the school. My volunteering progressed to working on and then chairing the school yearbook, volunteering on the grounds committee, and then being a committee chairperson, board member, vice president and then president for two years at Washington.
This year, I am the Vice President of Leadership and Training for the Wake County PTA Council. I also serve on the Leadership Committee for the North Carolina PTA. This summer, I was excited to represent North Carolina as a voting delegate at the National PTA Convention in Orlando.
GAM: It's a lot of work, but you must enjoy it! What do you like most about it?
JVH: I really enjoy working with other parents to make a true difference in the lives of every student at our school. It's really empowering to be a part of an organization that can assist teachers by providing grants and funding for innovative programming in their classrooms or can create new family programs that bring the community together.
You never know how your efforts are going to touch the students at your school. It might feel like a lot of work sometimes, but it's all worth it when you see a student using technology that your PTA purchased through fundraising efforts or hear a story about two students who became friends after your PTA hosted a event where they met. The other parent leaders, teachers and staff at our school are incredibly hardworking and dedicated and I've really enjoyed getting to know them as we've worked together toward our common goals, having fun along the way!
GAM: What kind of projects have you worked on?
JVH: One of our biggest accomplishments at Washington was the creation of our Cultural Nights. Washington is one of the most diverse schools in the county. For the past two years, the PTA hosted a family event in the spring where we have highlighted a culture represented at our school. In 2015, we had a Holi Celebration, a festival from India. In 2016, we hosted a Hispanic Cultural Night, teaching our families about all the different Latino countries represented at Washington. For both events, we had parents from those particular cultures assist the PTA with the planning and execution of the events - from the arts and crafts and performances to making and providing the food for our families. They were both extremely successful with a very high attendance and great response.
The best part of the events was how families who had not been involved with PTA previously, came together to plan a community building event. PTA is all about family engagement and these programs really encouraged families to become a part of the planning process, seeing how they can make a difference at the school. It was especially inspiring to see our Hispanic families become involved in the event, even if they were not English speakers. Through the work of a bilingual parent on our PTA and with an engaged Hispanic mother, we were able to rally together families who may have never previously attended a PTA event, helping them to feel more comfortable coming to the school and getting to know other families. Those types of moments are what the work is all about.
GAM: You've also gotten involved at the county and state levels. What sorts of initiatives are you all working on in the next year?
JVH: Wake County PTA Council's mission is to unify, promote and strengthen PTA units in Wake County. Our council provides training, networking, events and support to all 180 units in our county. This year, we are planning monthly training meetings for PTA leaders on various topics including conflict management, advocacy and finances. Our arts program, Reflections, will be kicking off this fall, and our annual volunteer recognition event, Night of Stars, is in May. We also have a periodic newsletter which educates leaders about PTA events and initiatives, as well as our website, Facebook and Twitter. Last year, we helped all five new WCPSS schools launch new PTA units and we will continue our work with three new schools that will open in 2017-2018. We also provide support to units who need additional training or help with specific issues at their individual schools.
On the state level, the North Carolina PTA is starting a new initiative this year called "Health is Academic." Healthier kids have better academic outcomes, so the PTA wants to encourage families and schools to focus on student health through physical activity and nutrition. PTA leaders can do this through healthy fundraisers, planning physical activities as part of family events and advocating for healthy lunches and snacks at school. NCPTA is also focusing on increasing its membership through the "Here We Grow" membership incentive campaign for local units. As a part of the Leadership Committee, we conduct monthly webinars for leaders across North Carolina and also hold in-person training sessions all over the state.
GAM: What would you say to a parent who is on the fence about joining or participating in their child's school's PTA?
JVH: Joining the PTA is as simple as paying for an individual membership at your child's school. Most school unit dues are between $5 to $7 per person. Joining your school PTA also means you are a member of the NC PTA and the National PTA, joining 135,000 state members and over 4 million members worldwide! The PTA is the largest child advocacy organization in the United States, serving 16.5 million students for over 100 years. Our power is in our numbers. Joining the PTA as a member does not commit you to volunteering. It just means you are an important member of an amazing organization that is working hard to advocate for EVERY child in our schools, in our state and in our country.
If you want to get more involved with PTA leadership by serving on a committee or even becoming a board member, I would encourage you to contact your school's unit president. We are always looking for more parents to become involved at a deeper level, no matter what the amount of time is that you have to offer. Opportunities exist for every type of PTA member - dads, moms, working parents, stay-at-home parents, grandparents, and community members. Start small, but just start! You never know where it will lead. But, most importantly, your child will see the investment you are making in their school and in them, and that's a powerful message.
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