This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
If you were to head over to J. Hampton Moore Elementary School in Northeast Philadelphia, odds are that you would see Jeanette Rivera, a mother of six who has two students at the K-5 school. She would probably be working with children and teachers, helping to set up the day’s activities or crafts.
Rivera runs an Ugly Sweater Contest. And a Crazy Hair Day. She organizes bike raffles.
She helps teachers and students understand autism.
On Saturday, Rivera was honored by the Philadelphia School District at its Family Engagement Conference at District headquarters. She was given the Family Leadership Award for elementary school parents, and two other parents received awards in the middle school and high school categories.
Rivera was elected president of Moore’s Home & School Association last year, charged with organizing fundraisers, planning events, and helping with arts and crafts.
“Mrs. Rivera has truly been a rejuvenation to the Moore community,” stated her nomination for the award by the school’s administration. “Her vibrant nature and desire to support the families, students and staff of the Moore school makes her the perfect nominee for the Family Leadership Award.”
Rivera, who is at the school nearly all the time, will pitch in to help with secretarial work and bookkeeping in the office when needed. But her main goal is to make the school a happy place where children — and adults — want to be.
Her daughter dubbed her “the fun mom.”
“It’s very important for kids to have fun,” Rivera said. “Education is No. 1 in my house, but they need other stuff, too, and I’ve noticed that a lot of schools don’t have that.”
Rivera and her family moved to Philadelphia 10 years ago from Belleville in northern New Jersey. Her children range in age from 9 to 25. The two at Moore are in 4th and 5th grades. After her youngest daughter was old enough to start kindergarten, Rivera was able to stop working for pay and began volunteering full time at school.
“My main goal is to help parents connect with teachers,” Rivera said. “I help them communicate.”
In the classroom, Rivera believes, students need to have a good time in order to learn. As the “fun mom,” she has figured out many ways to keep the kids engaged, including the Ugly Sweater Contest, with the winner selected by the students (the school nurse was victorious).
“When you do little things for the kids in the classroom, you can really feel the vibe,” Rivera said. “I believe that when the teacher is happy, the kids are happy, and education is better.”
On her days off, she scours the internet, looking for things the kids can do both at the school and outside it. For example, last weekend was Applefest at a local orchard, and Rivera made sure every child in class had an informational flyer to take home to show their parents.
“I’m trying to give these parents a day out,” Rivera said. “I want to make it as easy as possible for them to have a nice day.”
For children whose families might not be able to afford one of the day trips or activities, Rivera does whatever she can to bring that excitement into the school via activities or fundraising for students whose families might be struggling.
“We did a turkey raffle last year, and four students won. We actually found out later that two of those students wouldn’t have had anything without it,” Rivera said.
For Christmas, Rivera helped organize bike raffles, one for the girls and one for the boys. One little boy who won lived with his grandmother, who was on a fixed income. On a whim, the grandmother bought just one raffle ticket and won.
“When we delivered the bike, she was so shocked, she was in tears,” said Rivera. “Without this, she wouldn’t have been able to give him anything.”
Inside the school, she helps with programs like Girls on the Move, whose members are currently training for their first 5K, and Reading Olympics, a competitive reading team that won first place last year.
On top of all the programs and crafts she does at the school, Rivera is also her daughter’s autism advocate, and she shows teachers how to best interact with students on the autism spectrum.
Some of the students have never even heard of autism, and she teaches them more about what it means.
“She is a true family leader who wants to better every child through her work both academically and emotionally,” said the nominating letter.
Attendees at Saturday’s Family Engagement conference were given a backpack full of school supplies or a $30 voucher to Forman Mills. Speakers included Superintendent William Hite, School District Office of Family & Community Engagement representatives, and parents and students of the District.
Crystal Dailey of Penrose won the award for middle school parents, and Joseph Santore of the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush won at the high school level.