Volunteer Extraordinaire: Gina Jacobs
When a teacher at Oak Hill Elementary School in High Point, North Carolina was desperate for assistance with three special needs students during lunch periods, she knew who to call: Gina Jacobs.
Jacobs does not work for the school district. She doesn’t have children enrolled at Oak Hill, nor live in the neighborhood. She is a community partner and the school’s volunteer coordinator, a much-needed position in this lower-performing school included in NEA’s Priority School Campaign.
“The teacher really wanted the students to have the lunchtime experience,” says Jacobs, who has been helping at the school only since last fall but has an astounding list of accomplishments under her belt:
- Found more than two dozen volunteers to become “lunch buddies,” and reading, writing, and math helpers to students.
- Recruited volunteers for GED classes for parents.
- Found volunteer translators for parents who speak Spanish, Vietnamese and Urdu (Pakistani and Indian language identified with Muslims).
- Established school partnerships with CiCi’s Pizza, McDonalds, Wal-Mart and many local businesses.
- Worked with Green Street Baptist Church to provide weekend food packages for students in need.
- Recruited Ward Street Community Resources center, where she is a board member, to give $50 a month to help students with clothing.
- Engaged Piedmont Opera and the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival to perform at the school.
Despite her tenacity and citywide connections to businesses and non-profits, those three disabled students presented a unique challenge for Jacobs.
“That was my hardest request,” she says. “To find the right person . . . that required identifying someone courageous enough to take on kids who have more issues than most, and to be steadfast.”
It took Jacobs four months to find Duncan Chapman. The right person for the right job.
“The teacher is happy, the student is happy, the volunteer is happy,” says Jacobs, known among school staff for her boundless energy, passion and million dollar smile. “You hope you are being a good matchmaker. That’s the biggest thing.”
In a short time, Jacobs has shown a deep understanding of the role volunteers and community partners can play in building a strong public school, even one located in a high poverty area. Oak Hill has 450 students in grades preK–5, where 98 percent of them receive a free breakfast and low-and-reduced lunch. Demographic reports show a recent, steady increase of students speaking English as a second language, with 50 percent of students categorized as ESOL (English for speakers of other languages). In addition, the percent of LEP students (Limited English Proficient) in tested grades doubled from 2005 to 2009 (from 19.8 percent to 39.5 percent).
“Some of our efforts have been to simply feed and clothe our students,” says Jacobs, who persuaded Willow Creek Rotary Club to donate $2,500 toward clothing and Backpack Beginnings to give 30 weekend food bags. “These efforts are not directly education-oriented, but do affect the basics in the children’s hierarchy of needs.”
Other High Point businesses have also answered Jacobs’ call to arms. High Point Bank prepared a financial program for parents and other adults. Local furniture companies contributed to the school’s Parent Resource Room while High Point University gave the school tickets for one of its televised basketball games.
“She brought the community to us,” says Patrice Faison, school principal. “And we’ve run with it.”
The one project that pulled together the widest range of volunteers and resources was the school’s library card drive.
“We wanted to help students learn what a great resource they and their families had in the library, recognizing that many of our families might not have this public facility on their radar,” says Jacobs, who worked with the High Point Public Library to issue cards to many of the students.
“Names of the participating children were posted and their names were entered into a drawing for two bikes, three scooters and helmets to match,” she says. “If the children went to the library and actually got a book they were given another entry into the drawing.”
Jacobs, who has three adult children and is married to a local physician, worked with Wal-Mart, the local Bicycle/Toy/Hobby Shop, and her bicycling friends (she’s an avid cyclist) to secure the prizes. To cap things off, Oak Hill volunteers organized a library field trip for parents and children.
“Forty-seven folks climbed on the bus and went to the library where we were greeted warmly, given great tours, and a professional storyteller spent an hour with us,” she says. “So many important services were discovered. Children checked out books, parents saw that they could get movies, music, computer time, help with their taxes. After the tour, we all went next door to a Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, where the shop donated a donut of choice to each attendee.”
While Jacobs admits that food (morning snacks, ice cream parties, doughnuts) and prizes (bikes, books, IPod Shuffles) don’t directly address academic needs, they do provide “rewards and incentives and pure fun that can help to create an atmosphere where children are happy in their day, and look forward to coming to school.”
They don’t have the cape or the flashy tights, but educators and volunteers like Gina Jacobs are rising to a superhero challenge every single day. Often, we take them for granted. But few people have such an impact on all of our lives, and the lives of our children, as educators. Nominate and support the Classroom Superheroes in your community at classroomsuperheroes.com.