Awareness, involvement growing for VolunteerLee

Schools report success using Internet platform
Sep. 27, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

Students and teachers in Lee County's public schools are settling into their routines by now, about a month into the new school year, but they're likely still seeing some new faces around campus.

Volunteers are coming to the schools in greater numbers as tutors and mentors this year due to increasing membership in VolunteerLee, an organization that got its start about a year ago and officially launched in January. Its website at aggregates local groups in search of help and broadcasts them and their needs, all in once place, to an online community of hundreds of potential volunteers.

And one especially noticeable niche on the website is Lee County Schools — which public information officer Sharon Spence said is by design and has resulted in a lot of much-needed help for local students and educators.

"There's not any sort of written agreement, but we have been involved from the very beginning," Spence said. "We were kind of there, side by side, as it was developing."

Ron Hewett, VolunteerLee's lead coordinator, said he has worked with Superintendent Andy Bryan and other school officials to help meet the district's need for help in the face of budget cutbacks — but the website is set up so every group has an equal opportunity to reach volunteers, he said; the schools have just been taking advantage of it quite well.

Even more help reportedly came their way Tuesday afternoon, when the Carolina Trace Country Club hosted an event for VolunteerLee aimed at raising awareness among residents of the gated neighborhood, who might not have previously heard about or visited the website.

Larry Aiken, a Trace resident active with VolunteerLee, organized the vendor fair, which he said was attended by 22 nonprofits and other volunteer-seekers, as well as more than 70 potential volunteers. Lee County Schools Superintendent Andy Bryan spoke to the crowd along with other local leaders, and Aiken said those remarks alone probably equated to three or four new volunteers for the school system.

"He spoke of the importance of volunteers because of budget cutbacks," Aiken said. "He did a really nice job, saying, 'We want our kids to graduate, but we also want them to leave with another skill or two, something they pick up in our schools.' And we had a couple people express interest specifically in being volunteers just because of what he had to say."

Spence said the district has left it up to the individual principals to direct their schools' presence on the site, and that most have been active.

"Our schools that use it seem to like it a lot," Spence said.

Jan Hayes, director of the local United Way — of which VolunteerLee is a part — said she liked what she saw on Tuesday.

"I had some really good feedback," Hayes said. "... One resident came up and said he had just moved there and had been looking for some volunteer opportunities, and he found something right there."

Moving forward, Hayes said, the group has about 600 members and several thousand visitors to the website each month, showing that people who sign up stay interested. However, Hewett said he's always looking to get more people involved.

The next local event will be Oct. 24 at the Sanford Lions Club Fairgrounds, he said. A mobile dentistry lab from St. Joseph's of the Pines will be visiting to offer free dental help, as well as to advertise the services of VolunteerLee. Hewett said that's a great sign of how the Internet has allowed the effort to reach outside of the county's boundaries, and he reiterated that signing up for the website doesn't equate to a promise — just a way to learn more.

"You're not committing when you get on VolunteerLee, you're just making yourself aware of everything that's going on," he said. "... It's like a shopping guide."