With her last child in high school, Kathy Cason could cut back on her involvement in the school system. The bake sales and classroom visits. The field trips.
Instead she signed up to be a mentor at Melrose Elementary.
"There are a lot of underprivileged black kids that attend that school who need support," she said. "I also know that's an F school."
Cason, whose 16-year-old daughter attends Boca Ciega High, was one of 303 people who signed in last week at the Pinellas County School District's mentor fair. Of those, about 270 people went through the full training.
With the school year starting Monday, district officials had hoped to register 500 people at the fair to volunteer in the schools or serve as mentors for children. They still will be accepting mentors and volunteers as the year gets under way.
The school district has seen a decline in the number of volunteers and volunteer hours in the last three years. The number of volunteers is down 23 percent, while volunteer hours were down 28 percent, according to the district. Hillsborough County Schools, in contrast, has marked a 29 percent increase in volunteer hours during that time.
Some of the decline in Pinellas could stem from greater enforcement of a background check policy, which requires some volunteers to pay about $50 for stricter screening.
The eight-hour mentor fair, which was held at the St. Petersburg Marriott Clearwater Hotel, provided one-stop shopping for participants. They could register, get fingerprinted, attend training and even be matched with a student, said Sandra Hopkins, a district coordinator.
Maps of the county showed school locations to make it easier to find a convenient fit.
Each school had a table with representatives to talk about volunteer opportunities. Hopkins said the district also encouraged people to look at particular programs, such as Take Stock in Children, Girlfriends of Pinellas County, and 5000 Role Models of Excellence, among others.
Lizz Singh, family and community liaison for Jamerson Elementary in St. Petersburg, said volunteers run the library, a school store and work in classrooms as well as front offices. Unlike the countywide trend, Jamerson Elementary has seen an increase in volunteer hours.
The school had more than 250 active volunteers who clocked more than 10,000 hours last year. That's a 10 percent increase over last year in both categories, Singh said.
"Our school really welcomes volunteers," she said.
Felita Grant Lott, principal of Bay Point Elementary, told attendees that they're looking for a one-year commitment. Ideally, mentors will stay with their students from year to year, she said.
"We have some who are still mentoring students who are in college," she said.
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8846. Follow @Fitz_ly on Twitter.