- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 4, 2019

BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) - Kristin Taylor saw a student trying to balance his lunch tray while using crutches, and she rushed over to help.

Another student asked her how much lunch cost because he wanted to be sure he had enough cash. Then she helped pass out hundreds of lollipops. Standing in the crowded hallway during lunchtime at Bozeman High School, Taylor waved at faculty members and smiled at students.

Tuesday was the first day of school for Bozeman students, and Taylor wanted to give kids a warm welcome. In fact, that’ll be her goal all year.

Taylor helped organize volunteers who will greet students, offer assistance and be friendly faces every day, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported .

“You kind of become a jack-of-all-trades (as a volunteer),” Taylor said.

It’s called Project Connect. Volunteers aim to “model kindness and human connection,” Taylor said, while also promoting safety in school.

More than a year ago, Taylor said she and a group of parents decided to organize after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students were killed. Parents were feeling anxious about sending their kids to school, and they wanted to do something, Taylor said.

“We asked the district, ‘How can we wrap our arms around the school?’” Taylor said.

District leaders told the group that just the presence of adults could be helpful.

School safety has been a hotly debated topic nationwide in the wake of mass shootings. Lawmakers in Montana proposed a number of bills to address school safety concerns during the 2019 legislative session, and even looked to Bozeman for guidance. A $3 million federal grant has helped the district employ new mental health counselors and train teachers on how to help students deal with trauma.

Taylor said the volunteers are not meant to act as authoritative figures, but are there to offer support to students, especially those who may struggle in school.

Taylor and a few other volunteers started showing up to school last year. It was more informal then, but has since grown. Project Connect now has its own website, official T-shirts and about 75 volunteers. A goal of the project is to raise money for new technologies that improve school safety.

Only a fraction of volunteers can make shifts regularly, and Taylor said the project is always looking for help. Organizers schedule volunteer shifts in the morning while students are headed to class, during lunch and after school while students are leaving. Each volunteer must clear a background check and training, and wear a red vest or shirt while on campus.

The group consists of parents, but also retired folks, religious leaders and a member of the National Guard. Taylor said the project aims to involve all kinds of people in making students feel comfortable and safe.

Training for volunteers has included presentations by school counselors and the school resource officer.

First-year Principal Dan Mills said he thinks Project Connect will be effective in creating a positive environment at the school, and that he’s excited other schools are taking notice.

“It’s catching steam not only in our building but across the district,” Mills said.

Organizers of Project Connect will help other schools start programs. Taylor said the concept is basic and easy to implement - have caring adults present on campus and that’s it.

“It’s almost ridiculously simple, but the beauty is in the simplicity of it,” Taylor said.

More information on Project Connect can be found at projectconnectmt.org.

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