“Stars on the Water” and Candy Morgan, that is. Eleven years ago, Candy Morgan visited me (the principal of Tommie Barfield Elementary at the time) with a proposal for an after-school support program for second graders called “Stars on the Water.”
The original inspiration came from Reverend Kyle Bennett at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church from a program called “Leap Frog” in Mississippi. His vision became Candy’s vision and it grew by leaps and bounds. Along with co-leaders, Candy Morgan and Sue Hubbard, dedicated pioneers, Peggy Anuta and Sue Miller have worked diligently to make the program better every year. Now there are over 30 volunteers and support staff who bring a diversity of experiences and love for the 7/8 year olds
Twice a week smiling children hop off the bus, enter the Parish Hall doors, greet their mentors and pick up their stars. The volunteers and students are recognized by their personalized, yellow construction paper stars hanging around their necks with colored yarn. Their names are on them to help them reacquaint while they work with their tutors one-on-one.
On March 2nd when I visited the “Stars” program, there were about 16 excited students who enjoyed healthy snacks while having an introduction to their afternoon. Some of the many volunteers have been faithfully tutoring students for 11 years and some, enjoying their first years, are just as enthusiastic about the difference they’re making in the lives of these children.
Candy explained that several of the tutors are seasonal residents that enjoy giving of their time while living on or near beautiful Marco Island. The rapport between the tutors and children is priceless. It’s hard to measure who’s smiling more, the kids or the adults while they get help with their homework, learn new skills, perfect their reading and share laughter.
On this particular day, there were two volunteers from PAWS Assistance Dogs, located in Naples, who each brought a beautiful dog in training so the students could read their carefully chosen books to them. You can just imagine the knowledge that those dogs are getting by hearing such dynamic second graders sharing the written word.
I noticed that both of the dogs particularly loved listening to “Clifford the Big Red Dog” and “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.” Usually contemplative, the dogs would occasionally raise and cock their heads in appreciation of a student’s sentence read with expression.
The dogs’ handlers, Gina Day and Karen Boydson, were remarkably patient with thetwo and four-legged students and praised both for their reading progress and attentive listening. It was a joy watching both the students and the dogs benefiting each other.
“Stars on the Water,” in addition to tutoring, provides students with mindful time outs for exercise, collaboration and an extra fun learning opportunities. Besides reading to the service dogs in training, the students love doing clay projects with Jackie Lichius or nature activities with Carl Kelly. Marguerite Zschiegner brings lots of smiles when she entertains them on the piano with songs and games. Vera Parker, an 11- year veteran, creates very unusual and imaginative activities for the children. In fact, don’t tell them, but next week they’re making snow globes as a tool to help them concentrate on their work. Maybe I’ll sit in on that class with them, I could use that.
The tutors, most of whom were not former teachers, listen, care and respect their student partners and they become very close over the weeks of the program. The hugs are the best benefit of the “Stars” program, for both partners.
147 students have enjoyed the benefits of “Stars” over the last 11 years. The first students who enjoyed the “Stars” program are now 18/19 years old, out of high school and leading successful lives working, furthering their educations or, maybe, paying it forward by tutoring kids just like them that need a little extra TLC.
The “Stars” program has accrued 14,000+ volunteer hours over the last 10 years. Wow! Thanks to Reverend Kyle Bennett, who carried the spark that fanned the flame of nurturing students, our community is a better place through dedicated volunteer tutors:
Peggy Anuta, Barbara Cammann, Larry Cole, Kathi Estes, Barbara Johnston, Sue Hubbard, DeeAnn Kah, Skip Kah, Neil Kelly, Jane Leeber, Sherry McAllister, Candy Morgan, Kathie Osswald, Vera Parker, Mary Paschke, Nancy Roble, Betty Sheridan, Phil Sheridan, Nancy Sine, Mary Ann Sturken, Ed Vatcher, Marguerite Zschiegner; and Support Staff: Kathy Billington, Nancy Bond, Elaine Cole, Joan Conley, Ann Evans, Janice Glenn, Geri Green, Mark Johnston, Jackie Lichius, Jean Nogafsky, Bonnie Onopa, Maureen Paynter and Lou Stickles.
Giving is receiving. The stars of “Stars on the Water” are not only the students, but the tutors and support staff that make it all happen.
Jory Westberry has been a dedicated educator for over 40 years, the last 14 as Principal of Tommie Barfield Elementary, where she left her heart. Life is rich with things to learn, ponder and enjoy so let’s get on with the journey together!