Keith Worshaim used to patrol the streets of Columbus as a lieutenant in the city’s police department. Law enforcement was his calling for 25 years. Now retired, he wakes up with a different mission in mind at least two mornings every week. Worshaim, like about 15 other local adults, works with children as a VIP — Volunteer Impact Partner, a mentor and role model for kids, and support for teachers, in the Columbus Municipal School District.
United Way of Lowndes County and CMSD are looking for a few good men and women — up to 100, to be exact. The goal is to have at least one VIP paired with every elementary classroom in the city. It’s been the target since the program was developed by United Way Executive Director Danny Avery and Volunteer Columbus Director Renee Sanders with the school district last year.
“One of the top priorities of United Way of Lowndes County is alignment of resources to provide support for childhood success in education,” Avery said. “I think this program, fully developed, has the potential to be one of the most impactful things that United Way is involved with. If you can help a child to become an interested, involved student, you’ve made a lifetime impact on that person.”
What is a VIP?
VIPs assist students with academic needs, reflect the qualities of a positive role model, provide emotional support and assist in developing basic learning skills.
“They are to be a mentor, a support,” said Robyn Buxton, CMSD professional development and parental involvement coordinator. “They may read or tutor, but the main thing is to be a positive influence for our students.”
Volunteers are VIPs to their whole classroom, even though they may spend tutoring time with only one or two students at a time. They serve where needed, whether that is talking to a child who has had a rough morning or reviewing multiplication tables. The focus is on well-being as well as academics.
Applications are handled through United Way. Potential VIPs must be at least 40. Background checks and orientation training are provided by the school district. Each volunteer is asked to give at least four hours per week, and up to 20 hours if possible.
“They’re enabling teachers to focus more on actual instruction than having to deal with an upset child, to having to deal with a bullying situation, or having to take a child to the restroom,” said Avery. “VIPs minimize disruption and show interest in the children.
In some cases, the VIP may even be a child’s best example of what a nurturing adult is, said CMSD Superintendent Dr. Philip Hickman.
“I think everybody benefits from this program,” Hickman said. “If you ask the volunteers, they clearly say they feel like they gain more from it than anything. This is an opportunity for students to have a nurturing adult to give them motivation to continue to strive to do right in school. And if you talk to teachers, they’re so happy to have VIPs in the clasroom to support them and be a helping hand, to be on hand for students’ needs. … I’ve never seen just such a group of people that really care about kids.”
Keith Worshaim is so committed to the VIP program that he requested to add a second classroom this academic year. He now volunteers at Sale and Stokes Beard schools.
“I don’t look at it as volunteering: It was something I had to do,” he explained. “I believe you have to give back to the community if you have the time or resources to do so.”
He often tutors children who need help with math, and he enjoys organizing field trips to the police and fire departments, City Hall and the Lowndes County Courthouse. He also organized a field trip to Philadelphia last year.
Third-grade teacher Regina Wash at Stokes Beard echoed other teachers’ sentiments in saying, “The program is valuable because it involves the community in student achievement. (People like) Mr. Worshaim are making a difference in the community, in student engagement and academic performance.”
VIPs bring different strengths to the program. Gail Ward taught English as a second language in the county schools. After retiring in May, she heard about VIP through her church and began volunteering at Cook Elementary this semester. She regularly works with a Spanish-speaking fifth-grader who has been in America less than a year.
“Gail has been so impactful, a huge asset,” Buxton said.
“When you go into the schools, they’re so receptive and friendly — they kind of treat you like rock stars,” said Ward, whose husband, Wade, is also a VIP. “The students want the help.”
Berry Hinds is a VIP at Sale School every weekday. The retired process control engineer also helps with the after-school program. After attending numerous school board meetings as an interested citizen, he decided getting hands-on was the best way to know more about the school system.
“I found out that we have some great, dedicated teachers,” Hinds said. Working with the children is a reward in itself, whether it’s helping sort out a bad day one-on-one, or sitting in with kids studying science or social studies.
“I was in a math class yesterday, and one of the students was working on fractions, and (with the) exercise he was working on, he really realized what fractions were,” Hinds said Friday. “When you see those kinds of lights come on, it almost makes a tear come in the eye.”
Greatest need is you
The community needs to know that we are working hard on positive changes, Buxton said. The VIP program is one of them.
“I really would love to appeal to the community, that we can get more people involved,” said Hickman. “These kids are our future, and instead of pointing a finger, we have to start getting involved and find out how we can impact these youngsters’ lives.”
Volunteer Columbus Director Renee Sanders at United Way agreed.
“The greatest need is for you to step up and do something. Let’s get active and supportive … the greatest need is for you and your time.”
For more information, contact Sanders or Avery at 662-329-0943, or visit United Way of Lowndes County’s website, uwlc-ms.org and click on “Volunteer.”
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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