Walking into the Starpoint School, it is easy to see why TCU students love to volunteer there. The environment is bright and welcoming, and the echoes of laughter heard down the hallways are only the beginning of what makes this school so special.
Marilyn Tolbert, who has been the school’s director since 2003, said she feels very strongly about her job and the school. She said this job is her passion, and she is not alone. The school boasted more than 4,200 volunteer hours for the last academic year, Tolbert said. What’s surprising about the student volunteers is that not all of them, or even the majority of them, are education majors.
Brent Folan, a freshman business major from Chesterfield, Mo., said he volunteered with his mom at a similar school in St. Louis. In addition, his fraternity, Pi Kappa Phi, is involved with the school and the members help out as much as they can.
“I really enjoy going in each week and seeing how excited the kids get when I arrive,” Folan said. “Even though they are so young, you become great friends with them. It is so neat to see how much they appreciate the little things in life. This is a great place to get away from all the college stress and help make a difference in each of the children’s lives.”
Tolbert said volunteers come from all majors. Some people just love coming to play with the children.
Luke Harville, a political science major from Houston, volunteers at Starpoint every single day.
“The staff spends every day working to better the lives of these kids, and many times the sacrifices they make go unnoticed,” Harville said. “They really are heroes in my eyes. The reason I continue to go back every day is because though I have no training or practice in early childhood education, I feel that by building a connection with the students and being a stable support for them, I help in some small way.”
Harville said volunteering is the best part of his day, and if people would give only one hour a day they could better their life and the lives of the students. He said he enjoys reading books to the children and participating in music time. He said he will always have those memories even if the children don’t remember him.
TCU and its College of Education have an advantage that other schools don’t have. Having these two laboratory schools on campus is a tremendous help to students who want to go into teaching, specifically in the special needs area. Tolbert said Starpoint and KinderFrogs are the only schools of their kind in the nation because they are laboratory schools that cater specifically to children with Down syndrome and other learning disabilities. No other college in the United States has lab schools exclusively for special education, she said.
Hands-on practice, observation and acting as aides are a few ways that education students can get in depth training for their careers.
Lauren Guerra, a graduate of TCU from San Antonio with a degree in early childhood education, is now working toward her master’s degree in special education and considers the Starpoint School a valuable resource.
Guerra began volunteering at the schools as an undergraduate, completed her student teaching at KinderFrogs, and now is a substitute teacher for both schools. She said she is moved by how much understanding and love are within these schools, which is necessary for children with disabilities.
“At the age of these children, most acknowledge differences and question reasoning,” Guerra said. “At Starpoint School, it is understood by all that we are different. The children understand these differences and know that this is what needs to happen so we can all learn together. Outsiders might be confused by the strong structure of the school program, but this is what these children need. Routine and scheduling is crucial for children with disabilities; this offers them comfort in their environment as well as self-awareness.”
Guerra said having the student volunteers at both schools is an asset for the children. She said that the children need role models and mentors to look up to, and the TCU students also make the children feel like a part of the TCU family by including them in projects such as the Homecoming parade and tailgate parties. The children are not only a part of their own school but a part of their surrounding community as well.
The teachers are also moved by the volunteers’ presence, said Kristen Adams, a teacher who has been working at Starpoint for nine years.
“I feel our volunteers provide some valuable one-on-one attention for our students,” Adams said. “Even during play, our kids are constantly learning concepts as well as social skills from appropriate modeling. Some students volunteer on a regular basis throughout their college career and become favorites of the students. I also feel the TCU volunteers get a lot from our students. There have been numerous students who express surprise at how capable our students are – we maintain very high expectations for our students.”
TCU students are putting in more than time at KinderFrogs – they are making lasting memories.
“They are an invaluable part of our program, and we love to have them come and work with the children,” Tolbert said.