Retired school teacher named volunteer of the year

Helen Burnett was amazed when she found out the Covington Chamber of Commerce honored her as its 2012 Education Volunteer of the Year.

Helen Burnett was amazed when she found out the Covington Chamber of Commerce honored her as its 2012 Education Volunteer of the Year.

Burnett, who lives in Renton, got the phone call Feb. 12. She had just gotten home from Covington, where her daughter and son-in-law live with their two daughters, Kaitlin, 12, and Jordyn, 9.

“I was sitting down and my phone rang,” Burnett said. “I looked down and it said, ‘Covington Chamber of Commerce.’ I answered and they said, ‘You’re the Covington Chamber of Commerce Education Volunteer of the Year.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t live in Covington, I don’t do that much.’ It was totally humbling.”

To Burnett, the volunteers who should be recognized are the parents who work, then spend time at Covington Elementary, then do laundry, take care of their children after school, and manage all the things that come with the realities of working moms and dads.

On the other hand, Burnett is a grandmother approaching her 65th birthday, and a retired school teacher. She has volunteered at Covington Elementary for years.

“I have the time to be there, I’m not making a huge sacrifice to do it, so I feel somewhat guilty that I’m not in the same place as some of those others who are putting out over there to do the work,” Burnett said. “But I love what I do.”

“I know that the demands on the teachers are tremendous now and they have so much that has to be done and the children are coming to school with such profound problems and issues that they need all the help they can get, another person to read with a child or to sit and listen to them,” Burnett said.

Burnett started volunteering at Covington Elementary when her granddaughter Kaitlin was in first grade. It was a natural extension of her involvement as she retired from a 23-year teaching career to help take care of her grandchildren.

She had been volunteering as a storyteller at the preschool. When Katilin started grade school, she contacted a teacher she knew, who suggested Burnett come teach art which she did once a month.

Once Jordyn started at Covington Elementary, Burnett was in each of the girls’ classrooms once a week teaching art.

On top of that, last year she began tutoring a boy who needed help with reading.

Burnett also offers her storytelling talents to Laura DeBruler’s kindergarten class once a month. She dresses up as the characters and brings treats. In fact, when the students see her in the hallways, they call her Cookie.

When one of the office administrators needed to take emergency leave when her daughter gave birth earlier than expected, Burnett started helping out in school office once a week.

“Anything that they need, reading with a child, helping with a math group (I do),” Burnett said.

“Whatever I can do to lessen that load. The classroom sizes are so big right now, they need more bodies in there to help out, to give them that one on one, that’s all I do.”

Then there’s the Reflections program, an initiative started by the National PTA to encourage students to express themselves through art, which she took on to help make it more meaningful.

“My concern is that everything is so test oriented and everything has to be done one way and art is something they can do their own way,” Burnett said. “The Reflections program was something we needed to emphasize and get the children involved with, I just didn’t realize how much time it would take.”

Yet, it’s worth it, she said because of what it provides the children. Covington students have found success, Burnett said, with some who have gone on to the state competition.

Angela Stave, who works at Covington Elementary, nominated Burnett for the award. In her nomination Stave wrote, “She is an amazing woman who shares her strengths, knowledge, artistic skills, patience, time and passion for children with our school every single week in so many capacities. We love her and are very thankful for all that she gives to our children and staff. She and her talents are a true gift. If anyone deserves an Education Volunteer of the Year Award, it is truly Helen Burnett.”

Burnett said she is honored and humbled by the recognition. She also appreciates the Chamber for recognizing volunteers. She would encourage others to get involved because they can make a difference in the lives of children.

“In the school as volunteers, we’re that undivided attention,” Burnett said. “Just a few minutes, just a smile, means the world. If we could get more businesses to say take 15 minutes at lunch to go and read to a kid … our children need it. Our future needs it.”