Open Door to Education

Parochial Schools Run on Volunteers

In November of 2018 Door County voters went to the polls and punched ballots with a stunning show of support for education. In referendums for programming and facilities at Southern Door, Sevastopol and Gibraltar, voters approved $46.8 million in referendums, a startling number in a county with just 28,000 residents. But the people of Door County give with more than their tax dollars.  

In this year’s Philanthropy Issue, we shine a light on the variety of ways in which philanthropy is improving education at all ages. From volunteers who mop floors at our surviving parochial schools, to those who dedicate hours to assist teachers in elementary classrooms. From programs that teach English to immigrants, to corporations donating money to help inspire their next generation of employees. 

Add it up, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a community anywhere in the country that supports education more than people do in Door County. 

Stephen Roekle is principal of Zion Lutheran School on County V, between Jacksonport and Egg Harbor. “We run on volunteers,” he said. Like other parochial schools in Wisconsin, Zion receives no funding from the state. It operates on tuition paid by parents, some additional financial support from donors who support its mission and lots of volunteer help.

Zion has 20 students in grades K through eight. There are also 30 children in its early-childhood program — which can grow to 40 in the summer — and there is always a waiting list of parents hoping for an opening in the early-childhood program. Besides serving as principal, Roekle teaches grades five through eight. 

Parents sign up through the school’s Christian Parent Organization to take turns providing hot lunch for the students. Because there is no janitor, volunteers also clean the school and take on jobs such as painting classrooms. Their most recent activity was putting down wood chips to create a border around the playground.

Betsy Ploor, Zion’s early-childhood director and teacher, cares for youngsters aged two to four from 7 am to 5:30 pm. “An extra set of hands is always welcome,” she said. “Volunteers help with feeding lunch, and they rock and snuggle the youngest children. Generally, they’re from our church, and many of them are grandmas whose own grandchildren don’t live nearby. 

“Members of the Harborettes Homemakers Club from the Jacksonport area come once a month to read to the preschoolers and give each of them a book to take home.”

Volunteers are crucial inside and outside the classroom at Zion Lutheran School in West Jacksonport. Photo by Len Villano.

A retired teacher who’s a member of the Zion congregation volunteers to take Kris Lindemann’s 4 – 5K class Wednesday afternoon so that Kris can teach art to students in grades five through eight. 

“Our volunteers can never be praised too much,” said Beth Vertz, who teaches grades one through four at Zion. “They are absolutely wonderful to our kids, helping when we go to chapel and driving on field trips. Vertz’s husband is pastor of Salem Lutheran Church in Sturgeon Bay. Because Salem does not have an affiliated school, members of that congregation sometimes volunteer at Zion. “Thirteen Salem members took our students Christmas caroling for shut-ins,” Vertz said. “It was amazing to see how the people, some of them with dementia, came alive and sang every word of the songs with us.”

Paul Lutze is principal of Sturgeon Bay’s St. Peter’s Lutheran School, which has 109 students in grades 3K through eight. “We have quite a few volunteers who help in a variety of ways,” he said, “such as filing and copying worksheets for teachers. Especially in grades 3K through two, they gather supplies for science and art projects, cut out items, sharpen pencils, supervise art projects and hang students’ work in the halls. They also provide rides back to St. Peter’s for two students who attend band and a math class at T. J. Walker Middle School from 8 to 8:45 am once or twice a week. 

“Other volunteers spend an hour after school vacuuming and gathering trash and recyclables from classrooms. They help the cooks serve hot lunches and clean up afterward, work in the library, coach athletics and forensic teams, sell concessions during basketball and volleyball games, and help with scenery, costumes and makeup for the annual musical presented by grades five through eight.”

Rebekah Thoma, St. Peter’s kindergarten teacher, takes her class on a field trip every Wednesday. “Parents volunteer to drive,” she said, “and several of them provide extra car seats. After each trip, students write thank-you notes to the individuals or businesses that hosted us, and parents deliver them.

“Parents and other community residents are our school’s ‘mystery readers,’ who volunteer to visit kindergarten classes once a week — and grades one and two once a month — to read to students,” Thoma continued. “Other parents come to talk to our class about their careers.

“Every Wednesday morning, volunteers serve as chapel buddies for the kindergartners, then come back to the classroom to give one-on-one help with math, reading and writing. The chapel buddies, as well as our fifth-grade buddies, helped us make gingerbread houses before Christmas.

“Volunteers decorate the school at Christmas and set up chairs in the gym for big events. They set up 500 for the Christmas program.” Thoma concluded, “We’d be lost without our volunteers.”

Emily Marggraf, who teaches grades one and two at St. Peter’s, benefits from the help of volunteers in a variety of ways. At the beginning of each semester, parents sign up for a position they’ll hold until the semester ends, including driving for field trips, organizing food and games for holiday parties, preparing materials for science experiments and students’ art projects, and hanging the finished projects in the halls. One parent cleans the fish tank every two weeks, and others fill out Pizza Hut coupons and laminate materials for classroom work.

Marggraf’s students are especially excited about the mystery readers who visit them once a month. They submit clues in advance, and the children try to guess whose parent or grandparent it could be. The readers share a favorite book, often from their childhood, and read it to the class. “We are so fortunate,” Marggraf said, “to have all these wonderful volunteers!”

Students at St. Peter’s are also learning to give back. Before Christmas, kindergartners challenged students in other classrooms to join their food drive, and they collected more than 500 nonperishable items to donate to Habitat for Humanity to help families in need.  

Vickie Dassler is principal of Sturgeon Bay’s St. John Bosco Catholic School, with 125 students in grades 4K through eight and a staff of 16 full- and part-time teachers. 

“We have a long, long history of parents and community leaders serving as reading buddies and role models,” she said. “We consider all our parishioners as volunteers, as they’re all responsive to the needs of the school. A number of Door County’s many professional artists serve as resources in our classrooms. And I’m also proud of the fact that St. John Bosco has room fathers as well as room mothers.

“Parents help with field trips, volunteer as coaches for sports teams and lunchroom supervisors,” Dassler continued. “They do costuming and design sets for the spring musical, and help with the county health department’s annual hearing screening of students in 4K through grade 5. [They also help with the] vision screenings for students in grades K through five and seven, provided cooperatively by the health department and the seven Lions Clubs in Door County.”

Dassler added that volunteers are vital to the success of the school’s two annual fundraisers: the Gala of Giving on the first Saturday in March and the golf outing on the first Monday in August.  

“Ten volunteers come every Thursday to spend an hour as reading buddies,” said Lisa Mueller, St. John Bosco’s first-grade teacher. “When they finish reading, they are craft buddies. It is incredible how strong these relationships become. Students in the upper grades are so happy to see the people who were their reading buddies years before when they run into them at church, the grocery store or elsewhere in town. Volunteers also help in the lunchroom by tallying food receipts.” 

Jennifer Kacmarynski (who grew up at Kurtz Corral, founded by her great-grandfather) is the 4K teacher at St. John Bosco. “We thrive on volunteers,” she said. “They’re a huge part of our ‘family school,’ doing everything from providing drivers for field trips, decorating bulletin boards and helping with parties to accompanying the youngsters to chapel.”

Just before Christmas, a group of parents drove the students and Kacmarynski to Door County Medical Center, where they sang carols with the residents of the Skilled Nursing Facility, accompanied by Dassler’s son-in-law, Brian Fogarty. The children had made Christmas cards to decorate the residents’ doors and, after the singing, they colored pictures with the residents to hang on their walls.

Something unique about Kacmarynski’s class: Every week she cooks something for her students, related to the letter of the alphabet they’re learning. Who could not remember “G” when they have fresh gingerbread to eat?

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