Heart of Florida United Way is looking for volunteers to mentor students at schools in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties.
ORLANDO – Last year, Heart of Florida United Way started an ambitious pilot program, to recruit volunteers from the community who could help local students, and local schools, succeed.
Joan Nelson, one of the program’s coordinators, remembers how excited one volunteer got toward the end of the school year.
“One of our volunteers had been working at Palmetto Elementary School,” said Nelson, the United Way’s vice president of community investment. “He was working with a young student in second grade, mentoring him and meeting with him once a week, and really encouraging this young fellow to concentrate on his studies by being a positive role model.”
Just how strong an influence the mentor had wouldn’t be clear until much later in the semester, Nelson said, when he found out how dramatically the student’s academic performance was improving.
“His student aced his math and end-of-the-year reading exam, and it was a turnaround from the beginning of the year when he was failing in those areas,” Nelson said. “The mentor was so excited.”
Having an impact on the lives of young people, and finding ways to contribute to and improve local schools during a time of tough budget cutbacks, turned out to be an exciting challenge for the volunteers who took part in this pilot program last year, Nelson said.
“They were very enthusiastic,” she said.
Heart of Florida United Way is hoping to recruit 20 or more volunteers again this summer, to help the non-profit agency expand the program now known as “Schools and Communities: Together for Tomorrow,” so it can branch out into neighboring counties as well.
“We’re hoping to expand into Seminole and Osceola county schools, and maybe even some after-school programs that would align with the schedules of working class folks who can’t get off in the middle of the day,” Nelson said. “In the meantime, we’re very busily seeking individuals who would like to be in Vista this year.”
Hoping to find people willing to make a difference in just one year, United Way is now recruiting more School-Based Volunteer Program Coordinators before the new school year starts in August.
This effort was launched last year as part of the Interfaith School Turnaround Pilot, a program created by the U.S. Department of Education, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships, and the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Heart of Florida United Way chose to lead the local program in partnership with Orange County Public Schools, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer’s Cities of Service Orlando Cares initiative, and the University of Central Florida. So far, more than 800 community volunteers have been recruited to serve as tutors and mentors at Memorial Middle School and three Orange County elementary schools.
“It’s a special category of volunteers, and it was a program that we were fortunate enough to pilot in partnership with the White House Office on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Initiatives,” Nelson said. “The idea was to use a special category of volunteers called VISTA volunteers, in service for America. They receive a small stipend, and they dedicate 12 months to the project, serving in the schools to bring in other volunteer resources to support the ABCs in some targeted schools where students might be struggling. It was very successful.”
VISTAs will help recruit, train, engage and manage volunteers, who will then work closely with students in improving attendance, behavior, academic performance and access to college.
Participation requires a one-year commitment and includes a modest living allowance and end-of-year stipend.
“If they see a need in the schools, they are not going to address it directly,” said Anna Maria Lewis, United Way’s manager of education programs and initiatives. “They go out into the community to faith-based organizations and talk to parents and recruit the volunteers.”
“Some of the Vistas work out of our office,” Nelson said. Heart of Florida United Way’s office is at the Dr. Nelson Ying Center at 1940 Traylor Boulevard in Orlando.
“Some of them coordinate the efforts here, and some will be placed in schools or after school programs,” she said. “It will be a mini on-site center. They, too, will then go out and do recruiting of volunteers, engaging them in support activities, while others will be involved in event-based activities to support students. Each of the school districts has a very prescribed step for volunteers to come into school.”
To become a Vista volunteer, “All they need to do is get in touch with us,” Nelson said. “They can go to our Web site for more information. What we are looking for is individuals who can commit to being involved with the students if they’re going to be part of a mentoring program. We really would like them to commit to a full school year, so we’re looking to recruit them now. If they’re interested, they can come in and we’ll interview them and see if they are ready to make this commitment. They are actually going to take an oath to address issues of poverty and education. They almost commit to 24/7. It’s a regular work week and work hours.”
Michele Plant, Heart of Florida United Way’s director of marketing and communications, said she’s been busy finding ways to spread the word about the program.
“We’ve reached out to all of our print and media outlets, and it’s actually on our home page now,” Plant said. “We’ve blogged about it and have flyers out in the community for schools and libraries.”
To learn more about Heart of Florida United Way’s VISTA positions, contact the United Way Volunteer Resource Center at 407-429-2127 or e-mail volunteercenter@hfuw.org.
The United Way Web site is at http://www.hfuw.org/.

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