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California and the West

Fathers Joining Ranks of School Volunteers

June 21, 1998|LISA ADDISON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

IRVINE — When attendance at local PTA meetings dropped off and there was a shortage of parents involved in school activities, Charlie Guess took it as a personal challenge.

He founded the Dads Club in Irvine two years ago, and ever since he's been encouraging fathers to take on school responsibilities that have traditionally been handled by mothers. With more than 25 members, the group is getting rave reviews from school officials and fathers, too, who say it has helped them better their relationship with their children.

"We started out with just one thing in mind," said Guess, 41, whose son attends University Park Elementary School. "We just wanted to make fathers more comfortable with being involved in their kids' school. Parent participation in general had been declining, especially at the PTA meetings. We couldn't even get moms to attend regularly. So, we figured, let's get dads involved."

The reasons for getting involved are varied. Schools--and groups like the Dads Club--are doing more to make fathers feel welcome. And with more mothers in the work force, a growing number of fathers are opting to be the hands-on parent at school. But they say the reason they stay involved is simple: The best Father's Day gift of all is spending time with your children.

Irvine is not the only district benefiting from this trend. In recent years, school authorities at districts across Orange County say there are more fathers than ever among the ranks of parents who volunteer at schools. Fathers with children at Serrano Elementary School in Villa Park are planning to get a group started there in the fall.

El Camino Real Principal Jeff Herdman said a similar program at the Irvine school has been "just dynamite."

"The first year alone, they completely refurbished the girls' and boys' bathrooms," Herdman said, adding that the group's "loose change" drive raised about $7,000 toward purchasing computers and other hardware for the school media center. And that was before they tackled building the shelves in the library.

"The dads have done just about everything we could think of around the school in terms of projects," he said. "Now, we're getting them more involved in the classroom. Some of them show up on a regular basis to read to some of the classes. Many things that were traditionally done by moms are now being taken on by fathers. It's been interesting to watch."

Guess' group in Irvine is pretty typical. About 25 men regularly attend PTA meetings to keep themselves up to date on school activities. They also have regular "work days" at the school, where they serve as homeroom helpers and plan events such as the school's "hoedown" social. They hold monthly meetings, and fathers who have free time during the day or work nearby frequently meet their children at school for lunch.

Some are CEOs of large corporations, others are professors at UC Irvine or have other high-profile jobs. It's not unusual for them to show up around recess time, remove their coats and ties, roll up their sleeves and join their kids for a game of kickball.

Their ultimate goal is to have an endowment fund so that the PTA doesn't have to spend so much time organizing fund-raisers.

Hogan Hilling is a stay-at-home father and co-founder of the El Camino Real group, Dads in Action, which has about 25 fathers. He said the job goes beyond fixing things or painting and raising money.

"We're also there for the kids who don't have fathers, and we can serve as role models or mentors for them," he said. "I always tell the fathers that what they need to realize is that they don't have to be perfect. They just have to be a presence in their children's lives."

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