The din in the cafeteria at Sugarland Elementary in Sterling rises several decibels when Ronn Lonon enters -- the kind of clamor one might associate with the arrival of, say, Disney princess Hilary Duff.
Lonon, 49, is no red-carpet celebrity, but among the students at Sugarland, he carries considerable star power. Students flock to Mr. Ronn, as they call him, their hands outstretched for hugs and high-fives.
A United Parcel Service driver by trade, Lonon downplays his idol-like status. He says he's "just part of the furniture" at the school, and it's true that his visits -- he regularly spends his lunch hour with the kids -- have made Lonon, in the signature brown UPS uniform, a familiar and welcome face.
But "furniture" belies his involvement with the school; Lonon is anything but passive. Over the past six years, he has worked tirelessly to improve the lot of Sugarland students.
He founded a reading program that last year prompted hundreds of students to read 14,000 books. He launched a group called SugarDads, which encourages local men to become involved with the school, and more than two dozen have responded. And he set up a system to fund free lunches. In 2004, he was named Loudoun County's Outstanding School Volunteer.
Two years ago, when it became clear to school officials that the Sugarland playground was inadequate, Lonon teamed up with the school's parent-teacher organization to raise money for a new one. The playground was dedicated last month.
Lonon lives in Sterling, and he has two daughters, 26 and 14. But neither attended Sugarland. His involvement with the school is strictly a byproduct of his delivery job; until this year, his route included Sugarland.
He delivered packages to the school, and with them, bits of guidance.
"I just came into the office one day, and the principal at the time, [Lisbeth V. Fye], she had one of those guys that had a little episode. I guess in my man voice I was like, 'Hey, man, what's up?' and he kind of perked up. And [the principal] said, 'Well, hey, you can come by here every day.' "
Lonon seized the invitation. "Basically I'm the guy that takes the kid to the side and sits there and talks to him so she can teach the other 19 or 20," he said.
"Mr. Ronn's been my savior sometimes," said Jennifer Steeprow, Sugarland's assistant principal. "It's the male role model thing."
In a school that has only six male staffers, Lonon's presence is important. Jennifer Ostrowski, the current principal, credits him with helping her recruit the newest male teacher, fifth-grade teacher Edmund Hodge. Lonon made his school stop as Hodge was waiting to interview with Ostrowski, and he encouraged him to join the staff.
"His message to Mr. Hodge was, 'We need you here at Sugarland,' " Ostrowski said.
It's the same message Lonon has tried to sell to local fathers through SugarDads, encouraging them to become involved with the school. "Basically, to do what I do," he said. "When you have lunch, you take your lunch with the kids." In the year since he began the program, about 25 men have joined.
"He's not only a volunteer, but he's also a support for the school in helping us reach out to the community," Ostrowski said.
Lonon is constantly advancing the school's agenda while on his route, including tapping local businesses to support his reading program, "Read to Me."
The schoolwide reading competition, in which students can win prizes based on the number of books they read, has been wildly popular since its inception in the 2002-03 school year. Last year, more than 400 students read a combined total of about 14,000 books.
The success is due in no small part to Lonon's ability to get donations.
"He is that link between the school and the different businesses in the community because he goes to those businesses every day," Ostrowski said.
"It's not like today you have to come up with the prizes," Lonon said. "I mention it today, then next week I say, 'Hey, you didn't forget about the program, did you?' Next month, I say, 'Hey, you didn't forget, did you?' "
Though his involvement with Sugarland dates as far back as 1998, when he started on the Sterling route, the kids and the projects have more recently given Lonon a way to channel the grief that lingers from the death of his younger brother, Eugene, a D.C. police detective who died in April 2003 after his car was struck by a drunk driver.
"This was my therapy," Lonon said. "You come in here, and you draw off of them and you just keep going. They keep me going."
Besides, he said, after hearing his brother being eulogized, he thought: "I hope when I'm gone people say the same things, or as good a thing about me. I wanted to leave my mark, and what better way to leave a mark but with the children?"
His visits are never announced but always expected -- usually during lunch hour, which he tries to schedule from 11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. so that it straddles all three lunch periods. "That way I can disrupt all of them," Lonon said. "Every once in a while I'll buy 'em ice cream, just to send them back to class all sugared up."
His relationship with the kids is always lighthearted. He'll banter about an upcoming foot race: A bet with the fifth-graders that he can beat the fastest runner in their class has earned him countless taunts. But he's also quick to lay down the law. Mid-conversation, he leans over and taps a fourth-grader on the shoulder. "Throw that away, okay?" he says, pointing to a corn dog under the table.
He refers to himself as "the squeaky wheel that gets the oil," doggedly persistent in working for what he wants. So when UPS remapped his route so it no longer included Sugarland or the surrounding homes, he quickly negotiated with company higher-ups. Sugarland officials protested, too.
"The school called me personally to see what they could do to get him back on," said Tom Conrad, a manager with UPS, which has supported Lonon's efforts and donated $2,000 in T-shirts last year to "Read to Me." "He's been excellent. Those are some big shoes to fill there."
Though Lonon wasn't able to get Sugarland back on his route, he is still close enough to pop in a few days a week, and he did hang on to the businesses he had relied on for donations.
"I said, if I'm not there [visiting the businesses], you kill my reading program," Lonon said.
The reading program has survived, the playground Lonon lobbied for has been installed and now he has embarked on another crusade: a recreation center.
"That's my next project, to try to hype up Loudoun County to put a recreation center around here to give them something to do after school," Lonon said. "It's all about the kids."