Nov. 17, 2008 -- Jim Moore remembers how helpless he felt the day he heard of a school shooting in Jonesboro, Ark. Even though it was far from where his own children went to school in Springdale, Ark., the news made his children anxious, and he felt the need to do something -- anything.
"I thought about the people in our community, and could this happen here?" Moore said.
So, Moore called a friend, Eric Snow, who also had children in school -- and what sprung up was the national WatchDOGS organization, a group of fathers and other figures who volunteer to serve at least one day each year at school activities to promote safety.
Moore believed it was the right thing to do.
"I began to think about, well, who's there that's making a difference and who's not there? And it really just kind of hit me -- somebody who's not there who could be there is me," he said. "And I thought, 'well, what if you could create a program for fathers, and father figures, that come to school just to be that extra set of eyes and ears for the students and for the teachers?'"
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From that small beginning has sprung a national corps of 45,000 dads who volunteer in more than 800 schools nationwide. WatchDOGS, which originally stood for "Watch Dads of George Students," after the George Elementary School in Springdale, Ark., where Moore's children attended school, has blossomed into a national movement, "Dads of Great Students."
At the outset, there were many who doubted that Moore could convince fathers to take a day off of work to volunteer at school; especially that they could be persuaded to do it more than once.
"But you know what? They do," said Moore. "Because there really is this thing taking place in our country and the world -- a paradigm shift -- where men really, honestly do want to spend time with their kids."
Dads Eager To Make A Difference
Amy Hercules, the principal of Countryside Elementary School in Olathe, Kan., was uncertain what kind of reception she would get when she sent out a notice to parents that she hoped to start a WatchDOGS program. She planned a "kickoff" pizza party, where she hoped to gauge the level of interest in the community.
"We had over 110 dads to our first kickoff, and that's in a school with 240 kids," said Hercules, who smiled as she thought back to that evening. "I went in -- I'm embarrassed to say this -- with very low expectations ... we're pulling chairs from every classroom to find a place for them -- that just exceeded everything."
Now Hercules has a small troop of fathers, uncles and grandfathers who spend a day or half-day at the school assisting in classrooms, monitoring the hallways and playgrounds and helping out in the lunchroom. She hands the dads a detailed itinerary on what their role will be in the school during the day and how best to assist students and teachers. Fathers, Hercules has discovered, like an organized set of plans and a clear goal for the day.
"I think so much of our volunteer efforts have been mothers coming in, and I think dads see that sometimes and think, 'well, you know, where do I fit in this puzzle?'" Hercules said. "I don't think they've been ignored, really. I just think they've been an untapped resource, until programs like WatchDOGS have found a way to tap into that."
Brandon Shields, father of four and a busy manager for a telephone company, is one of Countryside's WatchDOGS. As often as his work will allow, he volunteers at Countryside, where the children clamor around him; his warm smile makes him a favorite, and the elementary students often hug him as they walk by.
"I know I make a difference," he said. "I love to support kids and make them feel their worth."
Rick Zappata's daughter, Sherrick, is 8 years old, and he likes to help in the classroom, especially with the younger children.
"I teach them art, sing with them, just all kinds of stuff," he said. "I get to spend time here with my daughter, too," which makes it a perfect day.
Bethany Good, who teaches English as a second language at Countryside, often enlists WatchDOGS in the classroom.
"It is phenomenal," said Good. "Seeing these kids absolutely light up when the dad walks in -- they love it! We have one dad who speaks Spanish, and they love to speak Spanish with him."
WatchDOGS Provide Sense of Security
The presence of fathers in the school brings a sense of security to many, like Logan Harder, a sixth-grader at Ridgeview Elementary in Olathe, where WatchDOGS are very popular.
"I really like them," she said. "It makes me feel safe, because we know we have somebody here who can protect us."
Dads wear a vest or shirt with their WatchDOGS logo, so they're readily visible to students and teachers. Their outfit makes it easy for children to approach them if they need help or encouragement, which happens more often than many of the dads expected.
"It surprises them, many times, when they see the response that a kind word or a word of encouragement, or just their presence makes," said Snow, who now directs the WatchDOGS organization. "And that it might actually improve behavior. We hear that from schools all the time."
Hercules saw discipline problems plummet after the WatchDOGS began volunteering at Countryside. Though dads aren't asked to have a disciplinary role, the children are usually on their "best behavior" when the dads are around.
"As soon as they walk in, you see the whole body language change," she said. "The kids are sitting up, and saying 'Hi!' and wanting to really show their best, and not just for their own dads, but for others."
Moore and Snow also believe the program helps many children who don't have fathers at home.
"We know that when a child has an active male role model who is highly involved in their life, that those children are going to develop more fully -- academically, emotionally and socially," said Snow.
Moore is convinced the WatchDOGS program helps the schools, too.
"When we come to the school, we look and go, 'Oh, this thing I've heard all my life about teachers being overworked and underpaid? It's true!' And 'Oh, this school needs some new playground equipment. And this library, it needs more books.'"
From their small start -- two fathers concerned about their children -- there is now an organization of tens thousands of fathers, doing their best to help as many children as possible, one school day at a time.
"People ask me all the time, 'why has this been so successful? Why has it grown like it has?'" said Moore. "And the answer is really simple: it is the right thing to do."