Nancy Henderson is a volunteer at Bingham Elementary School through the Council of Churches of the Ozarks Reading and Math Buddy Program. On May 4, Springfield Public Schools named her volunteer of the year. (Photo by Council of Churches of the Ozarks)

To become a reading buddy through the Council of Churches of the Ozarks Math and Reading Buddy Program, you must commit to volunteering for half an hour per week over the course of a school year.

Even with that limited time commitment, program coordinator Tina Miller said, a volunteer can witness moments she described as magic. 

A volunteer in a kindergarten classroom shared one of those moments with Miller recently. The volunteer asked her kindergarten student to write all the words he knew. The student said he didn’t know that many words, so the volunteer said to just write three. 

“He wrote his name,” Miller said. “He wrote the word, ‘mom.’ And then he wrote his reading buddy’s name. Those were his three words that he knew how to write in kindergarten, because she meant that much to him.” 

The program Miller oversees currently has about 110 trained volunteers who serve in five school districts in the Ozarks, including 96 who pitch in at Springfield Public Schools campuses. Miller is looking for more to join the ranks after the first full year in which schools welcomed back approved volunteers en masse after the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily closed campus doors to many non-school employees. 

“My goal is to be closer to 200 next year,” Miller said. “We’re recruiting. My job is just to connect caring adults to the schools and teachers who want volunteers.”

Volunteers linked to the Math and Reading Buddy Program accounted for about 1,000 of the total 7,000 volunteer hours that about 1,500 community members provided on SPS campuses this year. In that time, the volunteers helped 237 students work on improving their reading or math skills. That commitment is part of the reason why the program, as well as one of its members who dedicated more than 100 hours alone, were honored May 4 during an inaugural district event that celebrated the work of volunteers.

Jessica Blake, the coordinator of community partnerships, volunteers and public relations with SPS, said, “We celebrate volunteers all the time” across the district, and added that the event was an effort SPS Superintendent Grenita Lathan led to bring some volunteers together and “honor some special people in the district.” Blake said she expects next year’s event will be a bigger production, in part because of how much the volunteer base benefits the district. 

“Having volunteers at SPS is a huge value to the district,” Blake said. “We rely on volunteers to do so many things to help our students and our staff be as successful as possible. It’s just really amazing that they invest so much of their time and energy into supporting the work that’s happening in our large district of 50-plus schools and 3,500 staff and 24,000-plus students. It really makes a big difference in the work that we’re able to do.”

Meanwhile, Blake, Miller and others are looking to grow the district’s volunteer base as SPS concludes its first school year since the start of the pandemic absent of health and safety restrictions limiting who could and couldn’t be on campus. 

Math and Reading Buddy Program volunteer Steve Montgomery plays “Snap 10,” a game that was a favorite of the Springfield Public Schools student he worked with. (Photo by Council of Churches of the Ozarks)

Building up volunteer numbers to post-pandemic levels

Miller, a former Central High School math teacher, is a math buddy at Weller Elementary when she’s not coordinating her network of volunteers and seeking more participants. She took on the Math and Reading Buddy Program coordinator role in 2021, when SPS and other districts were still sharply limiting visitor access to school buildings in the wake of the early 2020 spread of the coronavirus.

Prior to the pandemic, Miller said, there were about 160 volunteers in the program — roughly 50 more than the current headcount. Miller said the 110 represents substantial regrowth. Miller’s entire volunteer base before this year was comprised of senior citizens, because the program’s funding was provided through an AmeriCorps grant targeted at seniors. This year, the Council of Churches of the Ozarks earned a United Way grant that allows the volunteer base to expand to applicants younger than 55. In part because of the lack of access to schools during COVID, and also because many of her volunteers were among a high-risk age group, the graph of the number of program volunteers from the outset of the pandemic to its current level would be V-shaped if you plotted it. 

“I mean, we were down to nothing,” Miller said. 

At SPS, Blake said the district keeps tabs on its overall volunteer count through a relatively new system. She didn’t immediately have a pre-pandemic head count of volunteers, but said the numbers of applicants and fully screened volunteers both have climbed recently. During the 2021-2022 school year, 1,500 people began the application process to volunteer with the district, and about 900 were approved. This school year, about 2,100 began the application process, with about 1,500 being approved, she said. 

“So I think that’s pretty significant in growth from year over year,” Blake said. “And I think we’ll continue to see that trend as people get a better understanding that we are open for volunteers. We want volunteers to be engaged. We want parents and community members to come alongside us to support the work that we’re doing.” 

And they wanted to regain access to SPS buildings. Blake’s interim predecessor in the coordinator role, current SPS school board member Judy Brunner, said during a February interview with the Daily Citizen that the sheer number of people who called to begin the volunteer application process had an impact on her decision to run for office.

“I mean, clearly, people had been frustrated and concerned and — again, this goes to the wonderful support in our community — they want to be in the schools; they want to help,” Brunner said then. 

Miller said joining the Reading and Math Buddy program or volunteering in another capacity offers community members insight into the school system as they provide help to students who need it. 

“I would say if anybody wants to know what’s really going on in a school, come volunteer,” Miller said. “You’re going to see what the schools face, what kids face, what teachers face every day. And I think the best way to make a difference is to just show up and be there and support our schools and support our teachers. Be part of the solution. That’s what I tell my volunteers all the time.”

To become a volunteer in the Springfield school district, or any other district across the state, a person must submit to a number of background checks. In Springfield, it’s a four-step process that includes an initial application, fingerprinting and registration with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services Family Care Safety Registry among its steps. If an applicant isn’t flagged during any of those steps, they are added to the district’s Hall Pass visitor management system, which includes additional security checks before someone is approved to volunteer on school grounds. 

Eagerness to serve shown among SPS volunteers who’ve returned to service 

Bethany Marcol, president of Sequiota Elementary’s PTA, put out a call for volunteers for the school’s field day. She needed 44 people. 

“And within that day, I had 98 percent of it filled,” Marcol said.

Everyone who volunteered had been screened and approved to do so. Marcol said it was one of many recent signs showing the school’s volunteer base was “so excited” to get back in the building and support the staff.

At the first SPS Volunteer of the Year event, Nancy Henderson was honored for her 100-plus hours of service at Bingham Elementary through her work with the Reading and Math Buddy Program. Lathan praised everyone who gave time to students in the past year.

“When I look around, I see the heart of our volunteers,” Lathan said in a news release about the event. “I see the individuals serving in the classroom, at home working on projects to support our teachers, at field trips and field days, in the lunchroom wiping down tables — you’re the driving force so much that happens behind the scenes and we can’t thank you enough.”

Miller said she was grateful Henderson and other volunteers were able to get back to serving their community. 

“This year has felt, finally, more normal, I would say,” Miller said. “Meeting at Weller this year, I would get the kids from their classroom and bring them down to the cafeteria where they met their math buddies, and they would hit the door of the cafeteria, and their faces would just light up when they saw their buddy.” 

Now, Miller said she wants to convince more volunteers to join her. 

“It’s like a magic you don’t even know until you see it,” she said. “It’s beautiful. It’s really cool.”

How to volunteer at Springfield Public Schools 

Whether it’s helping chaperone a field trip, tutor a student or clean up the cafeteria, a volunteer must pass through a multi-step screening process to serve Springfield Public Schools. The process takes time for both applicants and SPS officials, who currently estimate a three- to four-week wait on background checks. Begin the application process here. Review the list of volunteer policies and responsibilities here.

The district works with numerous groups that coordinate volunteer services across SPS. For those interested in the Math and Reading Buddy Program that was honored this month, the volunteer application is available online.

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson