And why it matters.

"Volunteers needed."

Are there any words that elicit a wider range of reactions from parents than those?

Dread - where am I going to find the time? Excitement - finally, I can get out of the house and talk to other grownups! Frustration - this means I have to work with that control freak Petunia Humpnagle again. And fear - how am I ever going to feed 207 kids and 23 teachers on a $94 budget?

Volunteering is a fact of parental life. If schools had to pay for every experience their students have, wellthey couldn't. So it's often up to parents to make up the labor, materials and money gap. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Why It Matters
"First and foremost, if your kid sees you actively involved in their school, that makes their education experience much more meaningful for them," said Becky Piela, a former teacher and principal who retired last year after 47 years in the Dayton and Columbus Catholic schools systems.

"You should want to do it because you want that school to be successful," Piela added.

Rhonda Wharton is a Columbus City Schools mom who has been volunteering in her three children's school buildings for close to two decades. Her oldest is now 26 and her youngest is 15.

"I like that I can keep close tabs on my child at school, and she knows it, plus I can see what's changing in the district," said Wharton who added that she uses one vacation day a month on average to volunteer.

At Columbus Academy, a private school in Gahanna with a strong culture of volunteerism, parents say they see the "trickle down" effect of their charity with their children.

"It makes them more inclined to be helpful," said Amelia Jeffers. "My son volunteered recently to work at an event that I was working at. I didn't even know he had until he asked me when we were going to be leaving for it."

Why It's Not Easy
The benefits are many, but that still doesn't make volunteering an easy task - for parents or for the school's staff.

Piela said it's easy for parents to get burned out when they commit to more than they can realistically handle. And Courtney Bosca, with children in both the Gahanna schools and at Columbus Academy, agreed: "You can easily get sucked into saying 'yes' to everything. I had my reality check because of an illness."

But economic realities these days also are making it harder for parents to volunteer. As late as 1989, Piela said, "I don't think any of the mothers in the school I was in worked. Now most of our parents do work and people are very cautious with their time."

Bosca said the volunteer pool at Gahanna has definitely shrunk in recent years, but she's found it's actually harder to get volunteers for the activities that take place after work hours and on weekends: "I think it's more a matter of people not wanting to get sitters at night."

How to Make It Work
But parents at every type of school in the area said that when it matters, you will find the help you need: "As with any place," said Bosca, "you have your core volunteers and they're the ones who always show up."

And Kevin Dubenion, with a fifth grader at Columbus Academy, said he's trying to put a different face on those core volunteers. A male face, to be specific.

"Let's be real," Dubenion said, "moms drive this place, and sometimes the dads just lift up their feet and coast. But I really like to get dads involved."

That's part of why he started the Lunch Bunch - "the happiest hour on earth," he bills it - where on the last Friday of each month, dads come into the cafeteria at Academy and oversee family-style serving of meals. The project was such a hit, it prompted the school to change all its meals to family-style seating where one adult, whether a teacher or a parent, sits, eats and talks with seven to nine students at each table.

That kind of problem solving is what schools need most from volunteers, said Piela. A good volunteer, she said, "listens to what a person wants them to do, but also uses good initiative. Instead of asking questions every two minutes, they figure out what needs to be done and they do it."