The kindness of strangers is making a world of difference for teachers in Homewood District 153, thanks to the Helper Bees, a network of volunteers dedicated to meeting the needs of staff at Willow, Churchill and Hart Schools.
The Helper Bees are more than 450 people organized through Facebook. In August they set their sights on helping teachers prepare for the opening of school. Months later, the volunteers are still helping. The needs have changed, but “we told the teachers we’re here for you, no matter what,” said organizer Shannon Ford.
She started the organization because she knew there wasn’t any extra money in the school budget to get what teachers needed, and because she wanted to bypass bureaucracy. She didn’t want to see teacher requests bogged down in paperwork. Working through Facebook, teachers post their requests and Ford and her team work to fulfill it.
When the Helper Bees first got started, District 153 was ready to put a hybrid schedule in place with most students in the buildings twice a week and studying remotely via computer three days a week.
It was a scramble to get wish lists filled with everything from pencils, crayons and notebooks to the essential personal protective equipment for every classroom – masks, wipes, hand sanitizer. A call went out for donations and local businesses served as drop-off locations. Dozens of people helped fulfill the needs.
“I just want to give a shout-out; to see the community come together and the individual people were fabulous. I can’t even tell you how generous they were. They gave gift cards, they gave supplies, they gave time,” said Ford.
Volunteers picked up donations, they bagged tiny erasers kindergarteners would use for counting exercises and chalk for the Chalk the Walk messages at the start of the school year, or they helped package stress balls the social workers would have available.
Then, days before the scheduled first day, the safety rules changed and District 153 moved to all remote lessons.
A team set out to make masks for students and staff, in addition to masks that were donated. Ford said the Helper Bees got a tremendous number of little lap desks for the kindergarteners.
“All that stuff is waiting in the schools,” said Ford. “When we pivoted, we still needed a good amount of basic supplies. The school social workers have identified families in need, so the crayons, markers, calculators — all that got distributed during supplies pickup.”
It was quiet for about a month and now Ford said the needs have shifted to what teachers need for their students and their own uses. Again the help has been tremendous — including 60 donated computer monitors.
Most teachers have been working off of personal laptops. The screens are small and it only allows for one activity at a time.
“I don’t know who works in industry at this point using only one monitor,” Ford said. With an extra monitor, the teacher can keep the screen with students’ faces open, and use the monitor to share materials.
Monitors have gone to teachers, staff and the schools’ library.
“I think that was one of our best projects because that was eco-friendly too,” Ford said. People were happy to share. She said one monitor was recovered by Homewood Disposal from its recycling center.
Ford credited Shelly Marks for much of the legwork on the monitors project.
“I know she’s the school board president, but she drove all over town collecting monitors along with other citizens and we’d bring them to the schools” for teacher pick-up.
As the weeks roll by, Ford said teachers are working to be creative with students. The kindergarten teachers have asked for Play Doh, and post-it notes were requested for the second graders. The third graders each got a dry eraser board, the fourth graders got a deck of cards for math activities.
Ford said a request from the art teachers “was a special challenge because they wanted the kids to use paint and weaving needles and things like that. We were able to help out the Churchill art teacher when I found little containers so they could send paint home, and then the Hart teacher wanted sketch pads and a ruler.” Nail Savvy covered the cost of the paint containers.
Donations were also received from the Homewood Fire Department that provided rulers and pencils, and the 23 Miles South theater group donated art supplies and books toward the James Hart School “One School, One Book” project.
The book “Other Words for Home” by Jasmine Warga is being read by 724 students. It’s available from the Homewood Public Library, and it can be ordered at Bookie’s New & Used Books. The business is donating 25 percent of sales back to James Hart School.
Ford said she thanks everyone on her list of volunteers, which “is too many to name,” but she is especially grateful to businesses that donated “because it’s such a hard time for all businesses. It’s tough and they came through.”