YORK — When Peter Vacho spent a day earlier this year as a volunteer at York’s Cotton Belt Elementary, where his children attend school, it was an “eye-opening” experience – in a good way.
Vacho, the youth/prep football and military outreach manager for the Carolina Panthers, brought some footballs and organized a quick game of catch at recess for students in first to fourth grades. They had a blast.
But the day wasn’t all fun and games. Vacho, 37, worked with students in several classrooms, helping them practice with flash cards. He patrolled the halls and helped with arrival and dismissal.
Vacho is one of 27 dads who have registered for Cotton Belt’s new Watch DOGS program, part of a national initiative in which fathers or other adult male relatives of students are asked to spend at least one full day at school to be a positive role model for the students.
DOGS stands for Dads of Great Students.
“We’ve had pretty good success with it so far,” said Lacey Layne, a Cotton Belt Elementary guidance counselor who decided to launch the program after attending a conference where she learned about it. She said Watch DOGS was founded in 1998, inspired by one dad’s desire to increase male involvement in school, and has spread to schools across the nation.
Layne said the Cotton Belt program began in February, when Vacho was the first dad to volunteer. He also led the effort by speaking to a group of dads or other male relatives of students.
“Typically our volunteers are women – they are moms and grandmoms who come in to help,” Layne said. “We wanted to reach out to dads, and have a way for them to feel comfortable coming to school to volunteer.”
Under Watch DOGS, she said, dads, granddads and other male relatives of students are asked to spend a full day at the school. They have a structured schedule, with car duty in the morning, an introduction on the school morning TV show and volunteer time in four classrooms at different levels, including a stint in their own child’s class. They sit with students at lunch, patrol hallways during the day and help with car duty after school, she said.
“They are exhausted by the end of the day,” Layne said. “It’s a full day, and they don’t get a break. They are working in the classroom with kids. When you’re working with small children all day, they realize how hard it is.”
James Rumaker, who has an 8-year-old grandson at Cotton Belt, has volunteered through Watch DOGS on four different days.
“Once you do it, you’ll want to do it again,” he said.
Rumaker, 51, said he did one full day and three half-days.
“The kids come in smiling,” he said. “And after you do it once, they recognize you; they want to see you again. If I’m the one greeting them on car duty, some kids will stay in their cars until I’m the one to open the door and let them out.”
Rumaker said his days at the school have been very active. During recess, he participated in football and cheerleading games. He also pushed students on the playground swings.
During lunch, he said, “they all want to sit next to you and talk to you. Which is where you learn quite a bit.”
In the classroom, Rumaker said, he enjoyed helping students with math and other lessons.
“My grandson loves it, too, because then all the kids know who I am,” he said. “It’s very rewarding, and you can see the excitement on the kids’ faces. I feel like I am making a difference, helping some of the kids.”
Layne said those who sign up for the program must pass a background check, conducted by the school district, and have an orientation with her. They receive a Watch DOG uniform shirt so they’re easy to identify.
Vacho, the father of three children ages 7, 6 and 3, said his volunteer day was a fun, engaging experience.
“How can you engage dads?” he asked. “That male role model, a lot of kids need. The Watch DOG program gives us the opportunity to engage kids in a wonderful way.”
Layne said the school spreads Watch DOGS volunteer days throughout the year. She said Watch DOGS contributed 11 volunteer days in February and 13 in March. She said many of the volunteers take off work to participate.
She also said the Watch DOGS are asked to fill out a school survey after their volunteer experience. A favorite question, she said, asks about the highlight of their day.
“Seeing the kids smile and the feeling of making a difference,” one Watch DOGS volunteer answered.
Another responded: “Helping a few teachers with students that are trouble. I enjoy making those children that don’t like school smile, and let them know that school can be fun.”
Another Watch DOGS volunteer said the best part was “the look on my son’s face.”
Vacho said he hopes more dads will volunteer for the program and that it spreads to other schools.
“It’s something I think is direly needed, not just in our school but in schools across the nation,” he said.
Layne said the program has been popular with students as well.
“The kids love it,” she said, especially when their dad visits. “When they are here, they feel on top of the world that their dad is spending the day at school.”