While other students play in the snow during recess, 9-year-old Kharisma Vreeland and 11-year-old Trey Munnerlyn are working, wheeling bags of food across the Hellgate Elementary playground in a wagon.
The bags were donated by the Missoula Food Bank for kids who need extra at home. It’s Kharisma and Trey’s job to deliver the food to each of the school's three buildings. They also give tours to incoming students, and help teachers decorate and organize their bulletin boards.
“It’s fun to help out,” said Kharisma, who started her jobs last year.
She and Trey are among the roughly one-third of the Hellgate Elementary third- through fifth-graders who work similar jobs as part of the “Hawk Helpers” program. School counselor Sarah Schwarz started Hawk Helpers three years ago, originally to help kids struggling with chronic absenteeism or behavioral issues feel more connection to their school.
“It has helped greatly,” Schwarz said. “I had a couple of kids last year who were missing like half the school days. This kind of turned that around for them.”
She told the students if they don’t come to school, their job won’t get done. It gave them the sense that they’re needed and have a responsibility to help their school, Schwarz said. Their attendance improved.
“It was amazing. I don’t really have words for it.”
Now, the jobs program is available to all the third- through fifth-graders, housed in the school's Building One.
Trey enjoys the challenge of learning to work as a team, as when he and Kharisma pick up the wagon and turn it around. Kharisma likes the responsibility of upholding good behavior for younger students who might be watching.
“Before, I felt like a role model for my little brother, but now I feel it for a lot of people,” she said.
To join the program, students must complete applications, gather two references and be interviewed by Schwarz. She asks each student what makes them a good candidate for their desired position, and whether they’re willing to give up five recess times for job training. Despite the sacrifice, it’s a huge hit.
“The kids are really involved and constantly asking what they can do,” Schwarz said. “I think it helps them respect the school more.”
Jobs range from helping the gym teacher cut out box tops as part of the Box Tops for Education program, to making “Happy Birthday” cards for teachers, to working as the school nurse’s assistant, making ice packs several days a week. Fifth-graders read the morning announcements over the loudspeaker, an honor reserved for their class only.
Hayley Helena, 11, said she looks forward to attending school more when she’s saying the morning announcements. The job requires her and a partner to gather the announcements from teachers and then determine who reads what. It has given her more confidence, she said.
“I would have a nervous stomachache and be really shaky,” Hayley said about her job when she first started. “Now I'm not that shy anymore.”
Her friend, Deanna Chinikailo, 11, who also reads the announcements, agreed she’s learned empowering skills.
“Speaking loud and clear, talking and not being shy.”
In the education world, programs like “Hawk Helpers” are known as meaningful work programs. They help students experience worthwhile escapes from usual school frustrations, and also increase the chance that students will have a positive experience with their peers and an adult outside the classroom environment.
For some kids, that can mean the difference between dreading school and looking forward to it.
Svetlana Simonovich, 10, echoes Deanna and Hayley’s excitement about the morning announcements. The girls recite the final part together by memory, as they do over the loudspeaker.
“As always, remember to be safe, respectful and a learner. Have a great day!”