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Dad Joe Mitchell and the Watch D.O.G.S. help SWFL schools

06/05/2019

This story was originally written by Andrea Stetson and published on SWFLParentAndChild.com on June 5, 2019 at 12:10 am.

Parent Teacher Organization meetings are usually attended by moms. Many elementary classrooms have a designated classroom mom. They are there for field trips, lunch and volunteering. Yet dads can be just as active.

The perception that school volunteering is just for moms is something Fort Myers dad Joe Mitchell is trying to change.

Joe Mitchell with daughter Finley and son Stellen. Photo by Amanda Inscore.
Joe Mitchell with daughter Finley and son Stellen. Photo by Amanda Inscore.

In 2010, when his oldest child started school, he founded a Watch D.O.G.S. chapter at Heights Elementary School. Since then he’s helped create Watch D.O.G.S. groups at 14 schools in Lee County. And it’s not just elementary schools. He helped foster the program at three middle schools and one high school.

“My goal is to have it in all the schools,” Joe says.

The acronym D.O.G.S. stands for Dads of Great Students. It is one of the nation’s largest school-based, family and community engagement organizations in the country. Since it began in 1998, more than 6,450 schools around the nation have launched local programs.

Watch D.O.G.S. aren’t just dads. They are grandfathers, uncles, stepfathers and other father figures who give their time to volunteer in schools and mentor children and teenagers.

In Collier County, Jose Perez is part of Watch D.O.G.S. at Highlands Elementary School, where his grandchildren attend.

“Me working all the time when my kids were young, I never had the opportunity to do this,” Jose says. “Now I do. We are role modeling the togetherness of the family. The more in touch you are with the kids, the better role models they will become.”

For Joe, in Lee County, it started with a quest to help his son.

“It was purely out of worrying about our kids going into a big school after leaving a little religious preschool up the road,” he says. “We saw how big it was and thought we would be there for our kids.”

Jose Perez, right, enjoys helping at Highlands Elementary School in Immokalee where his grandchildren attend school.
Jose Perez, right, enjoys helping at Highlands Elementary School in Immokalee where his grandchildren attend school. Photo by Andrea Stetson.

When his children moved to Cypress Lake Middle School, he added the program there.

“When I first started at Heights, the principal there said she had 900 students and half of them don’t have a dad in their life, which totally floored me,” Joe says.

Soon he had 120 dads sign up to help at Heights Elementary, becoming role models for all the children there.

“People started talking about Watch D.O.G.S., and I got contacted by other schools,” he explains.

Now the program is at Heights, Treeline, Allen Park, Edison Park, San Carlos Park, Cape, Pelican, Tanglewood, Rayma C. Page and Gulf elementary schools, Cypress Lake, Varsity Lakes and Lexington middle schools and South Fort Myers High School.

Joe says it helped that he is on the board of the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce and was able to convince the chamber to pay the $400 to $500 startup costs. The one-time fee pays for a kit that includes a training video, calendar, T-shirts and other materials.

“The chamber offered to pay for it, and I offered to go to the schools to start it up and then find a couple of dads to take it on,” Joe says. “We have been pretty successful.”

Joe also campaigned for the program to move into middle and high schools.

“Everybody in elementary said this is great, but it will never go further than elementary,” Joe says. “But it continued. We filled the library and filled the cafeteria with dads.”

The chores might be different at the middle and high schools, but the idea is the same: being there for kids who need a father figure.

Joe recalls helping a boy get his first A by encouraging him to learn map skills. He remembers helping an angry middle school student who was in detention learn that there was more to life than watching YouTube, and the boy joined the track team.

“Some of the teachers have grabbed me and put me in the detention room because the kids will talk to me when they won’t talk to the administrators there,” Joe says.

“I just talk to the kids. We talk about what do you do on the weekend, how to get along with other kids, how to get kids to like them, how to get girls to like them and all the things they need and don’t have dads there to help them. The things they talk to you about are priceless.

“It is nice to have the kids ask me questions and open up to me. I am not the administration, and I am not their parent. I became a sounding board for what is going on in their middle school transition. We are here for all the kids.”

Kelly Maniscalco, principal at Cypress Lake Middle School, loves having Watch D.O.G.S. at her school.

“They come at a drop of a notice,” she says. “The biggest thing is just their presence. He (Joe) is the best dad I ever had at this school.”

Laura Mendicino, principal of Highlands Elementary School in Immokalee, also appreciates the program. She has nine Watch D.O.G.S. at her school.

“It’s about providing a male role model for the whole school,” she says. “It just increases the parent involvement and awareness of the social environment of their student. Those habits translate to the home. The parents are actually playing and having fun with their kids. They are not on their devices. We just want to connect them, so they have conversations. That male role model piece is a big part of growing up.”

Joe Mitchell eats lunch at Cypress Lake Middle School with his children, Finley, right, and Stellen, and Stellen’s friend Alivia Mehalik. Photo by Andrea Stetson.
Joe Mitchell eats lunch at Cypress Lake Middle School with his children, Finley, right, and Stellen, and Stellen’s friend Alivia Mehalik. Photo by Andrea Stetson.

At Highlands, the dads commit to spending one full day at the school and then to volunteering at events such as field day, before-school activities and in classrooms.

“Making those relationships beyond their dad is so important,” Laura says. “It is for all the boys to connect with another role model.”

“I have been trying to help as much as I can,” says Jorge Ramirez, a Watch D.O.G.S. member at Highlands. “It’s just for them to see a parent there. I know when I was in school my parents were laborers, so it was very hard for them to be around school and go to any activities. Knowing that, I try to help my daughter. I try to be there.”

“This is a support system,” adds David Castro, who is also a Watch D.O.G.S member at Highlands. “It is just being here to show up and support the kids. The point of being a Watch D.O.G.S. is you see the kids light up when they see a parent in school. It helps the other kids when they see someone caring about the kids.”

Noah Smith, 11, a fifth-grader, at Highlands agrees.

“They show up, and just the fact that they are here and they play with the kids is great,” he says. “They support the kids.”

Even the children of Watch D.O.G.S. enjoy having their dads on campus. Stellen and Finley Mitchell have grown up with their dad volunteering at their schools.

“It makes me feel safer,” Stellen, an eighth-grader, says. “I like being able to see him help other kids and interact with other people. I also like that he helps other kids that don’t have the same opportunities to be parented.”

“I like it because it makes you feel safer,” Finley, a sixth-grader, adds. “It makes you feel more comfortable. It’s nice to have parents help.”

That’s why Joe wants this program in all the schools.

“When they see you here, they know this is important,” Joe explains.

Joe is the incoming chairman of the education foundation at the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce and wants to use this position to expand the program.

“I was asked what my mission will be when I become chairman in July,” he says. “I want to move this program to every school in the district. This is the easiest job ever. All you have to do is show up.”

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