June 29, 2017: So much more than a book

June 29, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

When I was growing up, the “book mobile” visited our neighborhood each week.  Every Tuesday night, an over-sized bus lined floor-to-ceiling with books would park in the lot of our local ice cream parlor. It opened its doors and the neighborhood kids streamed in.  The librarian/driver not only knew each and every child, but also knew what they liked to read.  Stacks of books came and went.  Our family’s weekly outing to the book mobile was as much a part of the rhythm of life as attending Sunday morning church service was.

Not all children have that same access to books.  Belmont resident Kylia Garver is trying to help fix that for one small Boston school.  Having opened in 2014, the P.A. Shaw School serves predominantly low-income families, with 100% of the student population qualifying for the free school lunch program.  A high proportion of the student population has learning disabilities.  A high percentage of the kids are homeless.  Access to books is not a way of life for these kids.

With its expansion to fourth grade this coming fall, P.A. Shaw prepared to handle its students with a part-time librarian.  The problem was. . .the school library had zero books.  Garver describes the school as having a “huge library with lots of empty shelves.”  A school the size of P.A. Shaw, she says, should have at least 7,000 books.

She vowed to help.  You see, Garver also grew up in a reading family.  Her mother, Janet, was a teacher and a literacy specialist.  She was known in her community as the “book woman,” often going to local schools to read to the kids. Garver learned early that reading books helped kids engage their interests.  Whether it was sports, or science or history, reading helped children pursue those interests.  It also worked the other way. Kids not otherwise particularly interested in reading might pick up a book about baseball or a biography about Helen Keller.

Garver has been beating the bushes in Belmont to gain donations of books for P.A. Shaw. “Anything you might find in a library,” she says.  “Picture books, easy reading, science, biography, chapter books.”  She talks about how Belmont families may have aged past certain book “stages.”  Those unused books need not become clutter in your home, she says.  “P.A. Shaw can sure put those to good use.”

Garver tells friends and neighbors (and anyone else who will listen) that cleaning out and donating no-longer-used books is one small way to help the P.A. Shaw School. And Belmont has responded.  As of last week, Garver says, she had collected more than 2,300 books from Belmont residents, which she is organizing and preparing to take to P.A. Shaw. If you want to pass on some old family favorites, you should contact Garver by e-mail at kyliab@gmail.com.  She will arrange with you either to pick up, or to have you drop off, the books you wish to give.

Belmont residents should understand, Garver says, that what you might give is “so much more than a book.”  When the P.A. Shaw librarian shares new books with the school’s students, she explains to the kids that “people gave these books because they care about you. They want to help you learn, to grow.”  What the kids take away, she notes, is the knowledge, perhaps newly found, that the kids have worth and that they should believe in themselves just as others believe in them.

Kylia Garver.  Belmont’s own book woman.  The efforts spearheaded by Garver should not be simply a project of Belmont’s young parents. Garver’s efforts deserve the support and participation of the entire Belmont community.

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June 15, 2017: Growing a daughter at the ballpark

June 15, 2007–Belmont Citizen-Herald

Born into it. A Red Sox fan for life.  She never really had a choice. Our daughter, Allison, attended her first Red Sox game at the ripe old age of six months. For the next 18 years, until she left home to go to college in Iowa, Allison and I, dad and daughter, had a standing Friday night “date.” If the Red Sox were in town on a Friday, we headed to our seats at Fenway Park.

At first, it was simply an opportunity to give Mom a one night break from having a baby in the house. Over time, however, the trips grew into an entire set of personalized routines and rituals.  Home run celebrations. The Seventh Inning Stretch. Sweet Caroline. Dad and daughter. Game after game. Year after year. Even our friendship with the parking attendant. The attendant knew us; he looked for us. He noticed the first time Allison was the driver (rather than in the passenger seat) when we arrived one night.

It always felt like being a dad/daughter twosome at the ball park was noticed more than had we been a father/son duo.  And we played to that.  I wore my “Who” jersey (#1) to games while Allison wore her “What” jersey (#2). (Think “Who’s on First” for those familiar with Abbott and Costello comedy routines.)

Raising a daughter at the ballpark presented difficult decisions for a dad.  At what age was she old enough to go get ice cream on her own (about 7; older than she thought necessary). How long is she gone before you start worrying (about 30 seconds). When she was a toddler, decisions involved when to head home. By the time she was 8, however, she was deemed old enough to stay late to watch extra innings.  When Allison was 11, one playoff game moved past midnight as the extra innings piled up. At what point, I wondered, did giving her the chance to watch history become parental irresponsibility?  (We left at 1:00.)

Opening Day 2008. The Sox were to receive their championship rings for winning the World Series the previous fall. But it was a day game. Allison was 16 and in high school. The question inevitable. “Dad, can I skip school to go with you?” The game, however, ended up scheduled for 4:00, rendering the issue moot.  We were both disappointed.

Conflicts did arise. The deciding game of the 2013 World Series was to be at Fenway. On a Thursday night. Allison’s away at college. “Dad, can I fly home to see the last game of the World Series.” The answer was firm: “no, you cannot skip three days of college just to see a ballgame. There will always be another World Series.” She retorted, as only a baseball fan could, “did you learn nothing from 1918?”

Allison was back in Boston last summer for a few days and we went to Fenway Park together for the first time in two years. Dad and daughter. She, no longer a child, but an adult. I asked her whether it was still exciting to walk up the ramp and catch her first glimpse of the Green Monster.  “No,” she said, “it’s more like coming home, a place of comfort and refuge.”

Baseball. It’s not just a game. It’s not just about Nomar, Varitek and Papi. It’s not just about watching Ellsbury patrol Center Field, or watching Pedro strike out the side.

Dads, daughters and baseball. Traditions, memories and special bonds. A place of comfort and refuge. Gee, back at the age of six months, I thought we were just going to a ballgame.

October 6, 2016: BHS protest honors father’s WWII service

October 6, 2016: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Last week, Belmont High principal Dan Richards issued the following public announcement:

“This past week at Belmont High School, a group of about twenty students peacefully organized their voices to support the national protest of ‘Black Lives Matter.’  On Friday. . .the students wore black to school and some students chose to write ‘Black Lives Matter’ on their arms. The students’ intentions were to bring awareness to the topic and to continue the conversation our nation is having. The students successfully brought attention to the topic in a peaceful and respectful manner by having dialogues with students, faculty, staff, and administrators without any disruption to the school day.”

Principal Richards stated: “In addition to the events during the school day, approximately twelve of our athletes chose to support our students’ voice at the evening football game by mirroring what some professional athletes have decided to do by kneeling during the national anthem. The athletes who chose to kneel in support of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement did so in an organized, respectful manner. The athletes who chose not to kneel decided to support the students kneeling by standing next to them, placing their left hand on their shoulder and their right hand over their hearts. . .This was also done in a peaceful and respectful manner.”

I attended junior high and high school in Des Moines, Iowa, during the Viet Nam War years.  Particularly as a former Des Moines resident, I appreciated the efforts of our BHS students.  How are those two things related?

John and Mary Beth Tinker were Des Moines students who wore black arm bands to school to protest the Viet Nam War.  School officials, who had been told this was going to happen, suspended both of them. The Tinkers’ schools were the same schools that my brothers and I attended.

The ensuing court case challenging the suspension of the Tinker kids ultimately made its way to the US Supreme Court.  The Court, in famous language applicable yet today, pronounced that “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate…”

The Court found that rather than trying to prevent “a material and substantial interference with schoolwork or discipline,” the suspension handed out by the Des Moines schools was used to prevent the “discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.”

My father fought in World War II.  My father was forever scarred by his service in Northern Africa and in France during WWII.  Nonetheless, I fervently believe that the actions of our Belmont High students honored, and didn’t dishonor, the memory of his long (and painful) military service.  Indeed, those BHS actions exemplified the very reason my father served. He fought to preserve the fundamental right to pursue the precise activities that the Tinker kids did, as did our Belmont High students fifty years later.

Principal Richards concluded his announcement last week, stating: “Allowing students to express themselves while respecting the views of others is one of the hallmarks of Belmont High School. The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement continues to be a topic of passionate conversation across our nation and in our schools. I am extremely proud of the manner in which our students organized and conducted themselves this past week.”

Principal Richards, I could not agree with you more.  I offer my congratulations, my respect, and my admiration both to our BHS students who sought to bring attention to the Black Lives Matter issue, and to our Belmont school officials who sought to facilitate that discussion rather than trying to shut it down or squelch it.

March 10, 2016: Impact volunteering: not just a weekend hobby

Belmont Citizen-Herald: March 10, 2016

Belmont officials recently proposed a $104.9 million budget for Fiscal Year 2017. Somewhat less than half (48%) of that money will go to the schools, with the remainder going to deliver municipal services. In fact, the true cost of running Belmont’s schools and municipal government far exceeds that $104.9 million figure. Nowhere does Belmont account for the hours that volunteers devote to essential governmental tasks.

In recognizing the value of volunteers, let me set aside those elected officials who serve without compensation (e.g., the Library Board of Trustees). Let me set aside, also, all of the “friends” organizations (e.g., Friends of the Council on Aging) who look sort of governmental, but are not. Let me set aside the various civic groups, too, that may look somewhat governmental, but are really private institutions (e.g., the Benton Library, the Food Pantry). Let me finally set aside all of the school-related groups (e.g., the various PTAs/PTOs, Parents of Music Students, Belmont Boosters).

If I were to include all of these extensive community resources, there would simply be too much to talk about. The collective effort of these private resources is part of what makes Belmont the community that it is. This vast wealth of social capital in our town, manifested by volunteer hours for community institutions, enriches Belmont in a way that has never been dollarized and quantified.

For now, however, let’s talk only about volunteers in town government. According to the Town’s 2012 Annual Report, Belmont’s town government had more than 400 volunteers working on various committees that year. Most of these 400 residents didn’t work on those committees most frequently in the news (e.g., the Planning Board, the Warrant Committee). In 2014, the town had two dozen standing committees helping to provide services ranging from traffic management, to shade tree preservation, to assistance in registering voters and supervising election day poll workers, and a host of other services.

In 2009, Cities of Service, a bipartisan coalition of more than 100 mayors from around the country, initiated a new project on “Impact Volunteering and Local Government.” Even in times of constrained municipal budgets, the mayors said, “one of the resources still in great supply” is “the willingness of people to help each other.” Cities of Service promoted “impact volunteering” as a structured, institutionalized way to help deliver basic community services.

The National League of Cities agrees with this approach of institutionalizing volunteerism. A recent report by NLC’s Center for Research and Innovation states that “the volunteer paradigm has shifted from one of weekend hobby to one of civic responsibility.” Today’s volunteer, the NLC says, seeks opportunities to contribute to the operations, safety and security of a community.

Belmont’s strong history of volunteer participation in civic affairs provides an ideal example of the benefits flowing from the “impact volunteering” model. Volunteerism allows Belmont’s government to tap the immense knowledge and expertise that resides in our community. When Belmont needed advice on how to control health insurance costs, it tapped residents bringing special expertise. When the town needed guidance on how to control the costs of post-retirement health benefits, local residents were available to contribute both their time and their knowledge.

When people hear about, and hopefully talk about, Belmont’s proposed $104.9 million budget over the next few months, they should recognize how much more they get from town government than just those services funded through that budget. Belmont bought into the concept of “impact volunteering” long before that concept was ever given a special label as a desirable local governing strategy. Because of its volunteers, the value of Belmont’s municipal services extends far beyond that which appears in the annual town budget.