Last week, Children’s Fairyland welcomed seven busloads of energetic kids—nearly 300 youngsters—for a day of reading, animal-petting, interactive plays and general fun. Accompanying the kids and their teachers were 25 adult volunteers not related to them: a lawyer, a real estate broker, a BART director, a computer consultant, and several retirees. The man in charge of teacher liaison, bus check-in, lunches and volunteer wrangling was Dr. Peter Sherris, who modestly says he “just can’t stand doing nothing.”
What an understatement.
Most people would welcome a stress-free retirement after working as a Kaiser cardiologist for 35 years. Not Peter, who instead decided to exercise his own heart by working on humanitarian projects in Africa and El Salvador. Well renovation, family planning and the training of local physicians were a few of his projects.
Then, five years ago, Peter found he could make an even more profound difference right here in his own backyard through a great local service organization, Oakland Rotary. By the time Peter joined Oakland Rotary 3 in 2009, the organization had undergone a big transformation. Membership was—and is—as dynamic and diverse as downtown Oakland itself, where we meet every Thursday at noon. Peter was initially pulled into a club project that donated three books for every third-grader in Oakland—often the first books in families’ home libraries. “Wow, this is pretty cool!” Peter recalls thinking. He liked the way the club leveraged people power and donated funds to create high-impact projects in the community.
In 2012, a huge opportunity for the Oakland Rotary presented itself, and Peter stepped up to a leadership role. The recently-passed California Kindergarten Readiness Act had established a Transitional Kindergarten (TK) for “young five-year-olds” (those whose fifth birthday falls between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2). TK provides our youngest students with a “kindergarten readiness” year, giving them a stronger foundation for success in traditional kindergarten and beyond. The median family income of Oakland TK classrooms is dramatically below the Bay Area median.
There was just one problem: The state had passed the law requiring the classes, but it hadn’t allocated any funding for the classrooms themselves. That’s where Rotary stepped in. The organization “adopted” all 11 TK classrooms in Oakland, providing them with free books, educational toys, school supplies and field trips to the Oakland Zoo and Children’s Fairyland.
“This was a powerful organization supporting the development of a whole new grade,” Sherris says. In 2012–13, the club donated $2,000 to every TK teacher to use to outfit their classrooms, and hosted field trips to both venues for all 280 kids.
But the support went beyond money. Sherris also recruited Rotarians to serve as regular classroom helpers, dramatically freeing up the teachers to focus on curriculum designed to support the social, emotional, physical and academic needs of 5-year-olds, helping to ensure their success upon entering traditional kindergarten.
Finally, Rotary partnered with Raising a Reader, Bring Me a Book and Philanthropic Ventures Foundation to maximize the impact and scope of the project. In 2013–14, the number of TK classes increased from 11 to 25. That meant making changes to the program, but Peter insisted that the field trips had to remain.
Teachers have told Peter that they can’t imagine managing a field trip without the volunteer help that Rotarians provided. They also told him that the field trips were an important experience for the kids, many of whom live in a tightly-constrained world made up of their homes, the inside of cars, and the classroom. For them, an opportunity to play outside their usual boundaries is exceptionally meaningful—and, as we know from our daily experience at Fairyland, meaningful play is a significant factor in successful learning.
The Rotary volunteers get their share of education, too. At last week’s field trip, I observed a Rotarian gamely shoveling sheep poop during an animal petting zoo program. That’s commitment!
Next year, Peter is upping the ante yet again, marshaling his forces to bring arts curriculum into the TK classrooms and underwriting the cost of training teachers to incorporate the arts into their plans. Partnering with him is Rotarian Margo Dunlap, the executive director of Pro Arts in Oakland, the 40-year-old organization whose vision is to inspire creativity, community and change.
Rotary has won the OUSD Partner of the Year Award for its work on behalf of TK classrooms though the leveraging of 300 members who donated time, money and talent to the cause. “They all contributed in some way,” says Peter.
Peter says he’s been privileged to spend decades helping other people as a cardiologist. He’s happy that he can continue to make a difference for the kids in his own community. The doctor is definitely in.