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Photo by DOUGLAS C. PIZAC/Associated Press

Dillon program gets varied people involved in the education process

DILLON - Peering at the flickering computer screen, Sandy Johnson points to a problem and asks Sergio Avila to answer the question in English.

The fourth-grader's correct answer is rewarded by a big smile from his part-time tutor and a new question. It's quite a change from just two months ago when Johnson first met the bright-eyed boy who spoke little English. "I'm just amazed at how far he's come," she said.

"I would never have imagined it. He's a great child, but he didn't speak very much English and I knew just a little bit of Spanish - but it was enough.

"I was really worried about the language barrier," said Johnson. "Somehow we were still able to connect. This has been such an enriching experience for me.

"Every child loves to get one-on-one attention from an adult," she said. "I went to help him, but I think I was the one who really gained from this experience."

All over Dillon people are learning the difference volunteerism can make - particularly because of efforts emanating from a basement room at Western Montana College. On the door a simple sign announces the campus' service learning program.

Headed by Ria Overholt, the program has created and expanded volunteer opportunities for Western students and faculty and community members. For instance, the Migrant Education Program puts volunteers from the local Patagonia outlet together with children from Spanish-speaking households. Johnson was one of several Patagonia employees who volunteered to spend 30 minutes twice a week tutoring children of migrant workers.

Patagonia agreed to pay the employees for their time.

"We felt it was a wonderful opportunity to celebrate diversity in Dillon," said Beth Sullivan, the Patagonia store's manager. "We feel it's important to keep good employees and to do that we need to allow them to do things that are fulfilling in their lives."

Sullivan said Polly Rhodes, a seasonal Patagonia employee and a member of Western's service learning center, initially came up with the idea.

"There are a lot of kids in Spanish-speaking households in this area," said Rhodes. "They don't always get the support at home on homework that others do and it's really nice that they can get some supplemental help in reading and other areas."

"This isn't an effort to try to Americanize these students," she said. "We want them to have pride in their heritage and culture. We don't want that to get lost."

A recent Hispanic Food Festival at Parkview Elementary is an effort to retain that pride in culture, said Rhodes. Rhodes said it's been a rewarding experience both for the students and their tutors.

Other businesses and federal agencies have also encouraged their employees to volunteer time at the schools. A new program this year brought volunteers from Barrett Memorial Hospital and the Bureau of Land Management together to help fourth- and fifth-graders at Parkview Elementary with reading and other subjects. Local retired teachers also raised their hands to help.

The program was developed by Western freshman Emily Allred. It brought tutors from the community into the school one day a week for a 45- minute session during the lunch hour.

"We focused on reading, but we told everyone it was OK if they worked on other subjects, too," Allred said. "Everyone really enjoyed it. It was a good experience for me and the tutors."

Organizing the program taught Allred skills that will be helpful in her teaching career.

"There are a lot of things that you don't think about while going to class," she said. "The kinds of things I learned are going to be issues that I have to deal with as a teacher - there were just lots of hoops to jump through and that's good to understand.

"I also gained a new perspective on just how important education is," she said.

WMC Chancellor Steve Hulbert said that experience is exactly what he hopes students will take from the Dillon campus. Western has one of the largest contingents of students and facility participating in volunteer and service programs in the Montana university system, he said.

"It really is what Western is all about," said Hulbert. "Experiential learning has always played an important role at Western. We've always believed that students learn better by doing.

"What better way to learn than through service and volunteerism?" he said. "It's perfect."

The service learning program also helps the campus shift its focus to the concerns and needs in Dillon and Beaverhead County, said Hulbert. Programs like this one are a "win-win situation" for the elementary, Western and the volunteers, said Parkview Elementary Principal Roger Pelletier.

"I hope this is something that can grow," he said. "If people are interested, they can call me and we can start a list for next fall. I saw a lot of good relationships develop through this program. It does take some effort, but it's so good for both the kids and the mentors."

Overholt said Western's service learning center works closely with organizations like AmeriCorps to build volunteerism in the community. The volunteer programs aren't just focused on adults. Programs like Recreational Awards for Volunteer Service help plant the seed for youth in the community, she said.

That program provides awards like swim and bowling passes to high school and middle school students who volunteer for a number of projects, including helping out at the local humane society or spending some time with seniors at the local convalescent center.

"The kids seem to really enjoy it," said Overholt.

Perry Backus is a reporter for the Montana Standard, Butte's daily newspaper.

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