You don’t have to be an expert or trained professional to be a successful and fulfilled volunteer. Just ask Roula Dafniotis.
Earlier this month, we watched Miss Roula, as she is known, interacting with pre-kindergarten kids at Carlyle Elementary School in Town of Mount Royal. There was no mistaking the love and trust going both ways as Miss Roula posed for photos with the kids, then took them to the schoolyard to help their teacher with some spirited playtime. And there was no mistaking the beaming look of joy on her face as she hugged and watched over these enthusiastic and active four-year-olds.
Dafniotis has been volunteering at neighbourhood schools for over 45 years, ever since her two boys — both now English Montreal School Board high school teachers — entered the system. She had come over from her native Sparta, Greece. Having married at 18, she never finished high school but busied herself as a homemaker. Her husband died several years ago, but such is her commitment that she continues to volunteer at the school, five days a week.
Her involvement as a volunteer in schools began when her son Dino was in pre-kindergarten as a four-year-old at the old Logan School in Côte des Neiges. The school called to tell her that Dino was restless, having a hard time adapting to classroom routine.
“The principal called me and said, if I’d like to, I could come to school and help out,” Dafniotis recalled. “I spoke to my husband, who was concerned about Dino’s little brother, Tom. I said I am needed to support Dino, and I asked a friend to look after Tom.”
When the school principal heard about the other brother, he had a simple solution: “Bring the baby along!” So she did, and started to interact with the children, beginning a long and cherished role as a public school volunteer. When she started offering the kids juice, four-year-old Dino began to feel more relaxed.
“After that the principal asked me to help, here and there, during the lunch hour, before and after regular hours.” She bought food and supplemented the children’s diet.
The family then moved to St. Laurent and, while her husband was sick for a year, she helped out with field trips. Her involvement at Carlyle began in 1978-79. The school follows the international program and is open to all: gifted, average and those with special needs. It offers pre- and afterschool daycare and pre-kindergarten.
“She’s got her own kitchen downstairs,” Emma Di Flumeri, Carlyle School’s social counselor, said with a big smile.
“Nine years ago I started a breakfast program,” Dafniotis explains. “The kids pay a small amount, and there is a paid staffer.” She also helps teachers distribute supplies and materials in the classroom. She is so dedicated she arrives at school at 6 a.m. and stays until the evening.
Why did she never try to get a paying job? “My husband was a very good man. We had enough money, and a nice life. I don’t need extra for my kids or myself.”
She also finds time to visit seniors in long-term care facilities, bringing along her home-baked cakes and cookies.
Di Flumeri, who intervenes when children need one-on-one social and/or psychological assistance, has seen up-close what Dafniotis has accomplished in her years at the school. “She’s getting to see the children of the children that she dealt with years ago, and there is a bond that gets established: a sense of security for the parents to see Miss Roula here.
“When people volunteer, they bring a different feeling — an easiness. It’s almost as if she’s there to extend the nurturing. There is a bonus here, beyond what we do, and she sometimes picks up on things that we don’t. Her role is not defined: she defines her own role. A child might say, ‘Oh, we never have chocolate chip cookies’, and the next day, she will make it happen.
“It’s a win-win situation. If parents have time to give, it sets things up for the future. The more we give, the better the future we are giving to the children,” Di Flumeri observes. “It’s not just about giving, it’s about what you get back. Look at her: She’s full of life. She feels wanted, appreciated, needed.”
Dafniotis agrees: “These are my babies. I love my school.”