ViPS volunteer Rita Kowales brings childhood into play

Rita Kowals’ role with Volunteers in Public Schools (ViPS) dates back to her involvement with the Parent Teacher Association on behalf of her niece and nephew when they were school age.

“And then I kind of — don’t ask me how — I got involved” in Little Rock School District, she says. Someone asked me if I would serve… and I’ve been here ever since. And it lasts 20 years, almost 30 years.”

Coles is now serving in her second term as chair of the Board of Public Schools Volunteers, which is celebrating its golden anniversary for the 2022-23 school year. She has become a fixture, a volunteer whose dedication has earned her the most prestigious organization award.

“My niece and my nephew [are now] stemmed “They have children of their own,” Coles says. “They came out and went and I still do it [things] with the school district.

Qualls’ dedication roots in the organization – which brings volunteers to Little Rock School District schools to provide a variety of services including clerical and logistical work; The resource talks, tutoring, mentoring, reading to students – also goes back to its inception.

Her mother was a teacher in Chicago. She says about herself and her siblings: “We were brought up to believe in school, learning and education.” “When [our mother] We volunteered to do things in schools, we volunteered – put up billboards, remove billboards, correct papers. … you have always taught us to give back to the community.

“And of course, being a community volunteer is one of the best ways you can give back to our kids because education and learning is the most important thing you can pass on to a child, I think.”

Qualls’ first tour as Chairman of the ViPS board came, by chance, during the organization’s silver anniversary. Her second term as president came from a desire to pounce when needed, according to Tammy Blaylock, Phipps’ program coordinator.

“We actually had someone who was our president-elect in line and she had a family crisis and couldn’t serve,” Blaylock says. And Rita, as a volunteer, says, ‘I’ll do it.’

Qualls works as an occupational therapist by trade, at Baptist Health Rehabilitation Center in Little Rock, and does documentation work. She dedicated her volunteer time to two efforts: AARP and “Children in the School District”. Her dedication to the latter earned her the Jane Mendel Award, named after the woman who led efforts to start ViPS in 1972.

ViPS Specialist Jackie Merrill notes how loyal Qualls is even in doing volunteer activities she doesn’t care much about.

“She doesn’t like [doing] “Billboards a lot,” Merrill says. “But Rita never told you no.”

Favorite Activities

Jane Mendel’s Next Reading Day, which takes place each November, is one of Koalas’ favorite Phipps. Volunteers, some of whom are notable personalities, go and read to pre-kindergarten through fifth graders at Little Rock Schools.

“Some people act out stories,” says Coles. “They like acting out.” “We dress up as characters.

“We also read books on the children’s reading list. So… they can get school credit, if it’s a particular book we’re reading during that time. This is an equal opportunity for everyone to have the chance of having someone in their school as part of our volunteers. [force]. “

Another favorite initiative is the organization’s Arkansas Scholars program for eighth graders. Qualls explains that the Arkansas Scholars give students a chance for a fresh start who may not have done well in elementary and middle school.

“We go to every eighth grade classroom in the school district…what we talk about with our students is high school preparation; [we let] They know they will be researchers in Arkansas the first day they enter high school.”

Qualls adds that the spring semester program makes students think about things like “what would you do after school, if you were going to college after high school, and things like that.” Students are informed of various opportunities and resources, such as college scholarships, and are told what types of jobs they can look for according to education level. Gowals says she usually stresses the importance of education for students. She adds that participation in the program has helped previous participants when they searched for jobs.

Arkansas students

Students are even provided with financial literacy training through Arkansas Scholars.

“It’s a good idea for the eyes,” says Qualls. “Even those kids who don’t like to listen in school, they’re going to start picking up when you start talking about budget and money and stuff. … [up]. “

ViPS offers guidance and counseling by carefully vetted volunteers. Teachers and mentors are trained by Blaylock and Merrell at the ViPS offices, located on the second floor of the Fair Park Early Childhood Center.

“We have mentors who approach the students individually,” Coles says. “We have groups that come in and act as mentors. And of course we partner with groups all over town” – League of Women Voters; Junior League of Little Rock; The Arkansas Realtors Association; AR Kids Read. “we [have] Lots of education partners, “which include businesses, faith-based partners, and community organizations, that work directly with the school system.” So we act as a link between schools and the community to get volunteers, says Qualls.

She continues, saying that the ViPS database has about 8,500 or more volunteers who can be contacted at any time. “We try to make sure that all schools have some community involvement.”

Volunteers can choose which schools they want to work in. some do; Others do not. “They’ll just say, ‘Wherever you want me… put me there,'” Coles says.

ViPS volunteers are honored during the organization’s spring recognition event, The Evening of the Stars, a themed event held on the third Tuesday in April. It will be on April 18 next year and will be considered the organization’s anniversary party. Milestones in ViPS’s 50-year history will be highlighted and previous Jane Mendel Prize laureates recognized.

More than 600,000 hours

During the 2021-22 school year, ViPS volunteers, including community partners, put in a total of 630,000 service hours.

“These hours equate to $18 million, if we’re being paid for it, we’re giving it to the school district,” Coles says.

Schools nominate teachers and volunteers for awards; The panel selects the winners for each award, including the Jane Mendel Prize.

“We have a community, we have students, we have our resources, our partners… Anyone can be nominated for an award,” Coles says. “It’s just our way of saying, ‘Thank you for volunteering at this school district.'” Topics for past events in which Qualls and others have donned costumes include storylines, superheroes, Star Wars, and a Western theme.

Given every year since 1984, Blaylock says the Jane Mendel Award is “the highest honor for volunteers in the region.” In 2010, Qualls received a Jane Mendel Award – “And when they called her, she was there picking up trash! And she was like, ‘I wish someone had told me.’” I wasn’t ready.” That tells you how much it is worth.

Coles confirms this, referring to herself as a “behind-the-scenes person.”

Blaylock adds, “She comes into the office every week and volunteers. She’s the only board member to do that. And she’s been doing this for years”—usually on Mondays because she’s off her job.

Blaylock says ViPS raises money for the organization not through events, but through a messaging campaign. “Our focus is really more on human resources than finances.”

They do what they do best

Some fiftieth anniversary activities have already been carried out. In July, ViPS committed to distributing 50 boxes of classroom supplies to 50 new teachers in the district. This month, the organization set aside $500 in education-focused awards presented during the Little Rock School District Gala, the August 10 back-to-school event for all district employees.

And in the coming months, the board of directors, made up of 28 members, will come up with and prepare for anniversary-related projects — “a special impact project every month,” Blaylock says. “The idea is not just to ‘celebrate’, but to celebrate the service.”

“We’ll add something every month,” Coles says.

For the future, Qualls would like to see the organization bring in younger volunteers.

“ViPS is something I’d really like to see our younger generation share – and having benefited from ViPS… come back and bring the experience.”

Meanwhile, always directed people to register as volunteers.

“If I knew someone, I would ask them to ‘participate in events like Jane Mendel’s Reading Day. She even involved her church, Saint Mark the Baptist.

“I love doing it, getting people, because I want them to volunteer and enjoy it as much as I do,” she says. “So, if I know someone who enjoys doing things, that’s the first thing I’d say — ‘This organization could use it. Why don’t you come see if you want to do something with it? “

For more information about public school volunteers and her Jane Mendel Reading Day on November 15, visit or call (501) 447-ViPS.

“When it comes to [the importance of] Says Rita Coles, chair of the Board of Public Schools Volunteers and one of the winners of the Jane Mendel Award for Exceptional Volunteers. “All of her friends were teachers. Almost everyone in my building was teachers. One thing we didn’t do was play at school when I was growing up, because we lived in school.” (Arkansas Democrat Gazette/Helen R. Williams)

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