Volunteering to make a difference

Volunteering to make a difference

Standing in front of 25 Young Scholars, mostly 4th and 5th grade boys at Norton Elementary, Chris Lavalais explains the importance of taking responsibility and behaving themselves as young men. Mr. Lavalais motions for a 3rd grader to join him at the front of the room.

Chris Lavalais, Norton Elementary parent
and volunteer, congratulates a Young
Scholar for earning tickets to an Atlanta
Hawks game.
“You are all leaders to him,” Mr. Lavalais explains to the older boys in the group, pointing to the boy at his side. “Whether you realize it or not, he is watching everything you do and he’s looking up to you. It’s extremely important that you always do the right thing, because there are younger students who see you every day.”

After a few more words of wisdom, Mr. Lavalais presents coveted tickets to an Atlanta Hawks basketball game, the hard-won reward for a Young Scholar in the 5th grade. The student’s good behavior in the classroom and steady academic progress put him on the road to Philips Arena, and he shyly beams with pride as he shakes Mr. Lavalais’ hand.

Sending the group off with a request to ask for help if they need it, Mr. Lavalais dismisses the Scholars to a tutoring session being held in another classroom.

Meeting each Friday, the Young Scholars are expected to accomplish classroom assignments, receive satisfactory behavior reports, and participate in character education discussions. Students are nominated by their teachers for participation.

Says Mr. Lavalais, a Walton County firefighter and Norton parent, “As long as the kids show they are working, we want them to see that their teachers, other parents like me, the administrators here, we’ll all do whatever we can to help them.”

Norton students know very well that Chris Lavalais is a man of his word. He is an active volunteer at Norton, often sitting in on classes to observe students, joining them for lunch in the cafeteria, and serving as a listening ear for students.

“I am very fortunate that my schedule allows me the time to volunteer here at Norton as much as I do,” he says. “I enjoy helping the kids, seeing them smile, and helping them to improve their grades. I’ve seen them struggling, and I know some of them don’t have fathers at home. I do whatever I can to help.”

Whether it’s working with Norton’s PTA or helping Young Scholars pursue opportunities for community service, Mr. Lavalais shows his commitment to Norton Elementary while displaying his trademark “calm demeanor and great sense of humor,” says veteran educator John LaMattina who serves as the school’s Parent Center coordinator.

“Chris Lavalais has made such a difference for our students and our school,” says Mr. LaMattina, who acknowledges that it can be intimidating for students to approach their teachers, other administrators, or their own parents for help with their classroom performance. However, “the kids know [Chris Lavalais’] sincerity. They know he is there for them.”

“…if the kids talk to someone about the issues they are dealing with, they perform better in school,” says Mr. Lavalais. “That’s better than keeping things bottled up. I try not to talk at the kids. I encourage them to see things as a forum, where we can talk to each other.”

As the parent of a 3rd and a 4th grader at Norton Elementary, Mr. Lavalais is an advocate for parents to be actively involved with their students’ education. He often suggests that parents visit Mr. LaMattina in the Parent Center for ideas about supporting their students.

“Kids remember the books you read and the games you played with them,” Mr. LaMattina says. He points out that the Parent Center offers learning games, books, and flashcards for parents to use at home with their students.

“There are many activities from our Parent Center that can help to strengthen their children’s skills, but they have to make the time to come in,” he says.

Mr. Lavalais agrees. “The resources are there for parents, and all they have to do is take advantage. I’ve learned from talking to the kids that they want their parents to be there, and not just at parent-teacher conference time.”

He recommends that parents join their students for lunch at school or help out at a classroom activity, when they can. “I know everybody’s busy, but parents have to spend time with their children.”