Every week, Barbara Pape spends four hours tutoring and counseling at Shaw Junior High and other schools of the Shaw neighborhood, working without compensation.
"I grew up in the inner city in Pittsburgh, and I remember having good experiences with volunteers," said Pape, a research assistant with a private firm. "I think it's a good experience for the kids, not just academically but socially as well."
Last week, Pape's dedication earned her one of 25 exemplary service awards when 8,680 D.C. public schools volunteers were honored at the annual "Salute to School Volunteers Day" at Dunbar High School.
"Because of our volunteer program our children are learning better, but more than that, we believe we are getting increased support from our community," said school Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie, who presided over the ceremony.
The awards program audience was entertained by anthems and spirituals sung by the Spingarn High School Choir, dancers from Woodrow Wilson High's Modern Dance Club and performances by groups from several other District schools.
The 25 award winners, chosen from a list of 75 nominees, each received a white marble plaque with a gold emblem of knowledge above the recipient's name.
"Some of these children come from broken homes, single-parent homes and poverty," McKenzie said. "These volunteers can give extra love but also be a reinforcement of instruction. That's why this night is viewed as being one of the most important nights of the school year. This is our opportunity to say thank you to all the people who came out to help us."
The volunteer program, considered an essential part of the school system, became a fully organized corps of workers in l977 under then-Superintendent Vincent Reed.
The volunteers come from all walks of life. They include teachers, parents, lawyers, government workers, the unemployed and retirees.
The volunteer program is divided into four categories: Support to Instruction, which includes tutoring and classroom assistance; Extension of Services, in which participants are trained by the Red Cross and provide health-care assistance; Enrichment, which helps with the creative approach to learning by organizing field trips and functions outside the realm of academics; and Advisory Advocacy, to provide counseling in homes and in schools.
"I rarely have a problem with getting people to volunteer in assisting these children," said Yvonne Merryweather, volunteer coordinator of Operation Rescue, the program's branch that helps provide volunteer tutors for students in remedial courses. "Even if they are gainfully employed, they manage to find a couple of hours a week to help out."
Retired government worker Erline Washington has volunteered for five years at the West Elementary School in Northwest. Nearly every day she assists the lunchroom staff or substitutes in classrooms for teachers who are called away.
"Just today I was down at the school and one of the kids called out to me, 'Hey, Miss Washington! Are you going to substitute for us today?' " Washington said during the Thursday night program.
Told she would not, the boy "stamped his foot and said, 'Oh, shucks!' " Washington said.
"I volunteer," she said, "because I love those kids and I think they love me, too."