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This summer, Math-A-Thon coordinator Tonda Thomas and fellow coordinator Debbie Miller were honored as Volunteers of the Year for their longstanding commitment to the Math-A-Thon program.
The award included an invitation to Memphis, where they were taken on an in-depth tour of the hospital, including a look inside the labs at St. Jude. They were also invited to speak with the hospital board and were honored at a special awards banquet.
“We were thrilled to be recognized,” says Thomas. “But we always want the focus to be on the school kids and the families, who do so much work in the program.”
Thomas, who teaches at Murray Elementary in Murray, Kentucky, says she began coordinating the Math-A-Thon nearly 20 years ago following the retirement of the former coordinator. Since that time, Thomas, and now with the help of Miller, has raised more than $186,000 for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“I like the idea of helping others,” says Thomas. “And as a teacher, if we can produce children who share that idea and who are caring and productive, then we have done our jobs.”
Thomas’s Math-A-Thon program includes kids in kindergarten through third grade. She says she appreciates the program because it’s an opportunity to remind the children how fortunate they are to be healthy and strong.
“For some it’s the first exposure to the concept that other kids are sick,” she says. “It makes me feel good when our children come up to me and say ‘I want to help those kids’.”
Aside from the internal values the program teaches, she says Math-A-Thon is an effective tool for reinforcing and “making fun” the math skills the children are learning in the classroom.
Thomas feels the one-on-one feedback from participating students is one of the more enjoyable parts of putting the program together.
“I’ll see a child in the hall, and they’ll come up to me and tell me that they’ve done all their problems and you can tell they have a great sense of accomplishment,” she says.
Through the years, Thomas says she has found new ways for increasing participation and making the program more enjoyable for the children.
She starts by promoting Math-A-Thon on her school’s closed circuit television system three or four times a week leading up to the kick off. She also shows the prizes that are available for winners.
To kick off Math-A-Thon, she gathers students and staff to watch the ALSAC/St. Jude Math-A-Thon video, and has former patients and other special guests in to talk about the program.
One of the most important components of a successful Math-A-Thon, according to Thomas, is teacher involvement. To increase teacher enthusiasm at her school, Thomas pays for incentive prizes out of her own pocket for teachers whose classes raise the most money.
“You’ve got to get the teachers behind the program, because they’re the ones that have the biggest impact,” she says.
For Thomas, her advice to other teachers considering starting a Math-A-Thon program is simple: Just do it.
“For the relatively small amount of time it takes to run the program, the payoff is enormous,” she says.