Grand Rapids – Some mornings when Belinda Henderson greets a student with a smile at Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Academy, she’ll get a frown in return. That’s when her inner grandma goes into action.
Henderson: “I’ll say ‘Excuse me? Did I do something wrong?’” Child: “No.” Henderson: “Are you OK?” Child: “Well, I didn’t get breakfast.” Henderson: “OK, let’s figure this out now.”
Then she’ll take that student down to the lunch room and find him a snack, or, as she puts it, “something to send that child in that classroom so he wouldn’t have, as we say, your stomach touching your backbone.”
Whether it’s keeping kids’ stomachs off their backbones, driving them to school or supporting bereaved parents, Henderson tends to her MLK school families’ needs — either at home during these past several months of virtual schooling, or back in classrooms where students returned last week. It’s her duty and her joy as a Parent Action Leader.
‘I tell my parents that I go to the White House to speak for them. I am your voice.’– Belinda Henderson, parent volunteer leader
PALs, as they’re known, serve as liaisons between families, their school buildings and the school district. They work to get parents involved in their children’s education, relay their concerns to teachers and administrators, help plan school events and, in Henderson’s case, put out coffee in the morning for teachers and parents when they arrive.
She’ll not be able to resume the coffee for a while yet, but she was good and ready for the day when classes reopened last Tuesday, Jan. 19. Still, she needed to wait for a negative COVID-19 test before being allowed back into the school, which she hopes will be this week.
“I can’t wait to see them,” she said of the students. “This is going to be so exciting.”
A Volunteer Veteran
Henderson could more precisely be called a GPAL – Grandparent Action Leader. She’s been volunteering for 24 years at MLK Academy, where her four daughters and five grandchildren all attended. Though she now lives in Wyoming with her kids grown, she still faithfully serves the school at 645 Logan St. SE.
“The one thing I tell my students, I don’t get paid to be here,” she said. “I love being here.”
MLK’s staff loves having her there, too. Principal Harvey Crawley calls Henderson a key go-to person “with everything from academics to housing, clothing, you name it. Any way that she feels she can contribute, she’s more than willing to jump in and help.”
Especially for students learning remotely and their parents, he added, Henderson is one of MLK’s “lifelines” to the school community. “Be it a phone call or ‘I’m just dropping something off’ … little things like that during these times go a long way.”
Henderson is one of the longest-serving PALs for GRPS, which strives to have at least one for every K-12 building, said Jamie Masco, Family and Community Engagement supervisor, adding, “She’s truly an amazing woman.”
Adapting to the Pandemic
Henderson is a custodian at First United Methodist Church, which has long had a tutoring program at MLK Academy. She is among the First UMC tutors, and worked with the church to establish a school garden. In cooperation with Our Kitchen Table, a nonprofit focused on healthy eating and justice, she is a coach for a program educating parents on nutrition and growing greens, peppers and other produce at their homes.
Henderson became active at the school after enrolling her kids in what was then Henry School. She was inspired to do so by its principal, the late Ruth Jones-Hairston.
“I just fell in love with the principal and the love she had for the school and for the parents,” Henderson said. “I just picked up on that love.”
But after decades of faithfully volunteering, Henderson last year found herself unable to put her love to work inside the school due to the pandemic. So she adapted, organizing remote games of bingo and virtual scavenger hunts with parents and kids.
“You’d be amazed how many people can find Christmas paper in July,” she said with a chuckle.
As always, she relays parent concerns to teachers and helps arrange meetings to address them. She also meets online regularly with other PALs and GRPS administrators to discuss issues on parents’ minds and be their advocate.
“I tell my parents that I go to the White House to speak for them. I am your voice,” she said.
Comforting the Bereaved
A big issue last fall was the district’s decision for all-virtual learning, which is now a choice along with in-person classes. Many parents complained of problems connecting their students online, and were divided about 50-50 on wanting to keep their kids home or go back to school, Henderson said. “But then you take 25 percent of both of them, and they’re just like, uhhh!” – fed up with it all.
But she pitched in to the annual Christmas gift campaign with First UMC and donors, providing $25,000 worth of food gift cards and board games to families. And she and church members organized a post-funeral gathering for the family of a third-grade girl who died on Christmas Day.
“It was a hard one,” she said of the tragedy, “but we got through it as a team.”