By Paul Lara, Belvoir EagleJanuary 10, 2020
There are DOGS prowling the halls. You'll know it's one by its markings -- a big smile and a purple paw. These dogs aren't predators, though. They're some of the greatest helpers that Fort Belvoir Elementary has seen of late, as Watch D.O.G.S. stands for 'Dads Of Great Students,' and they encourage, engage and enlighten the students throughout the day.
They greet kids getting off the bus, at breakfast in the cafeteria, and during morning announcements. That carries on through the day, as the WatchDOGS join students at recess, patrol the halls, and, while class is in session, check the perimeter for any security issues or opened doors.
The national organization provides positive male role models for the students, demonstrating, by their presence, that education is important. It also provides an extra set of eyes and ears to enhance school security and reduce bullying. The organization invites fathers, grandfathers, uncles or other father figures to volunteer at their child's/student's school. The Top DOG at Belvoir Elementary, Jason Karras, said it was an unexpected start, here.
Karras, an Air Force master sergeant who works with DLA Energy, first volunteered for a shift, at the urging of his daughter, while he was stationed at Langley Air Force Base. When he PCSed to Belvoir in 2017, he noted the absence of the program, and approached the principals, but with a subsequent deployment, the program had to wait.
The following year, Karras and his wife pitched the idea to the PTO, and, through numerous fund raisers, managed to collect the more than $2,000 for all the T-shirts, stickers, paws and supplies to drive the operation.
Once there was a steady presence in both schools, Karras noticed the kids became energized, and happy to be greeted by an energetic dad in the halls.
Karras said a significant event each day is being present in the playground during recess, keeping an eye out for bullying or kids who are sitting alone.
"I saw a kid who was by himself, and went to talk to him, and he said he was new to the school, so I went over to a group of kids playing, and said, 'Hey, this is my buddy, Steve, and he's new here -- can he play with you guys?'" They obliged, and the new kid finally got a chance to meet new friends.
"Once, I saw a couple kids hiding behind a bush, and when I asked what they were doing, they told me they were getting ready to escape. When I asked them what that meant, they showed me the hole in the playground fence right behind them." He promptly reported the issue to the front desk.
With only five male teachers in both schools, the WatchDOGS have brought fresh eyes, and willing assistance, according to Margo Pareja, Fort Belvoir Primary School principal.
"We had basketball nets that were missing for the longest time, and our WatchDOGS, between the upper and primary school, came, got a ladder and fixed that for us. … But now, our kids are out there playing basketball all the time," said Pareja. "It's been hugely impactful in a positive way. The WatchDOG has a huge, purple paw that he wears, and he's high-fiving the kids when they come in the building, and it sets the tone for the whole day."
The dogs also get three "Great Student" stickers they award spontaneously to students who are obeying rules and staying on task, and Pareja said the students get really excited by that.
Shaun Chandler joined at his child's insistence, and arrived for his first shift with his son at his side. After engaging with the volunteers in the halls and in the playground, Duncan told his dad he needed to volunteer. So, here he was, giving enthusiastic high-fives with a big, purple paw in the cafeteria first thing on a Monday morning. Then, they went to the library to take part in morning announcements, where Duncan introduced his dad to the whole school. Afterward, their picture gets added to the organization bulletin board.
Pareja said the grass-roots campaigning even landed on her desk.
"Kids leave notes about different things, and it touched me when I read a note from a little first-grader who had written, 'dear miss pareja, can my dad to be a watch dog please?'"
Tatjana Gainey, a counselor at Belvoir Primary, said that's a common start.
"We've had a lot of WatchDOGS tell us, "Yeah, I was voluntold to do this by my child, so what is this about?"
Gainey said a lot of thought is put into each man's strengths and where they could have a maximum impact. One of the biggest needs was cafeteria patrol during lunch.
"With more than 1,000 kids coming for lunch, the front office was stretched thin, and they urged me to have the WatchDOGS help direct kids to the nurse, bathroom, etc. Since we started that, it's been less chaotic and more easy-going," said Gainey.
School administrators saw program's path and worked with the supervisory Top DOGS to improve it. According to Tiffany Hagen, primary school music teacher, in just its first year, WatchDOGS has transformed into something very impressive.
"I've been at schools that have had the WatchDOGS program before. But, I see the program at Fort Belvoir is so much more effective, because of the organization of the coordinators, and also the schedule created for each dad to support the teachers," she said. "And, the Watch DOGS are stepping up to do a great job."
Petty Officer 1st Class Joey Budke said he was initially skeptical of the program, thinking it had a lot of moving parts trying to fill a lot of needs, so he sat on it a couple weeks. But, he kept remembering that one of his biggest goals in the Navy is to be a part of the local community. Since he was new to the area, and had not found something to invest in, he gave it a try.
It was really interesting -- it was FUN. A big part was being an example to the kids. Reaching out and saying hi," said Budke.
"After a teacher passed away, I was on shift the next day, and Jason alerted me about it. When I was with the kids at lunch, I had a chance to talk to them about and it was productive. It was more fulfilling than I thought it would be," he said.
Laurie Ligon, upper school lead counselor, says the mere presence of the WatchDOGS can change the atmosphere for the better.
"It's more than helpful, it's necessary," said Ligon. "Our male teachers have so many things to accomplish in the day, and the WatchDOGS can really go where they're needed, and that is beyond helpful. I think it's a program every elementary school should have."
In subsequent shifts, Budke said he was aware that even fleeting conversations can make a difference in a busy day.
"That one high-five could make a difference. That one Pokémon conversation -- even though I know nothing about it -- could make it a difference. I'm sold on it now -- I love it, and I'm fully behind it 100 percent. It's too bad I'm leaving in a couple years. Maybe this is something I can take with me to my next assignment."
That is, after all, how the DOGS came to prowl on Fort Belvoir.
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