Line Up for Hugs

Line Up for Hugs

Ronn Lonon is named Outstanding School Volunteer of the Year.

The students at Sugarland Elementary School call him Mr. Ronn, and they line up for hugs several times a week.

"When they see me, it's kind of like Christmas and I'm Santa Claus walking into the place," said Ronald Lonon. "You'd think I was giving them something. They want to tell me about their day. It's about how many books they've read or something else they did."

"When they see me, they know it's about them."

Lonon, a United Parcel Service driver, has been listening to "his kids" for about five years. The Board of Supervisors honored him Tuesday with the distinction of "2004 Outstanding School Volunteer."

"They've got a big brother they can talk to," he said. "If their Dad is missing or if their Mom is working two jobs … I try to fill in the blanks."

He takes turns eating lunch with students, reads with them and builds relationships. He also delivers UPS packages to their homes or sees them at the grocery store. He doesn't have any children at the school.

Lisbeth Faye, who was principal at Sugarland when Lonon first started stopping by, said he knows many of the students by name. "He was a great help with the kids who just wanted someone to talk to," she said. "I think that's very important. They need adults to listen to them."

David Michener, Sugarland's assistant principal, said Lonon has a good sense of humor. "He creates a great rapport among students at different grade levels," Michener said. "He's a very positive role model for all of our students."

BEING A BIG BROTHER to hundreds of students has led Lonon to other volunteer opportunities. He is being recognized for starting the "Destination Read to Me" program and "No Cheese Sandwiches Club" that feed the children's minds and bellies.

He came up with the idea of "Destination Read to Me" after helping a student with reading problems and a Hispanic child who had trouble reading English. In no time, he had a growing number of students who wanted to read with him.

Lonon came up with an incentive program to encourage students to read more. He asked area businesses during the 2002-2003 school year to donate prizes for first and second graders who read the most books. "It turned into a healthy competition," he said. "They read 500 books."

This school year, first, second and third graders read 10,155 books. Every student who joined the program received a T-shirt. His employer, UPS, is the sponsor of "Destination Read to Me," which will be expanded next year to the fourth and fifth graders.

"That's absolutely outstanding," said Supervisor Mick Stanton (R-Sugarland). "If we could only have improvement like that in all the schools. Ronn is an example of leadership in the community that others should follow."

Lonon, who provides another male face at a school that has only two male teachers, said the students get a kick out of the prizes. "Every day, there's a kid saying, 'Hey Mr. Ronn, I have my T-shirt on,'" he said. "Sooner or later, if one or two or 10 students learn to love reading … then we've made a difference.

"IF WE PULL OUT one principal, one teacher, one novel writer out of this group, maybe that's the seed we've been planting."

He likens the situation to: "If you plant the seeds now, who knows where they will blow."

Lonon said he wants to make a difference with the children in hopes of them someday making a difference in other people's lives. He also does it for his brother Eugene, who was killed in a drunken driving crash two years ago. Although Lonon spent time with the children before losing his brother, he became more committed to helping them after the loss.

"It was the way people spoke about Eugene," Lonon said. "People that we had seen on and off through the years, they needed to let us know this man made a difference in their lives."

Eugene, 33, was a police detective. "His friends would say that if they needed someone to talk to or some monetary help or anything, Eugene was always there."

Lonon said he begins most weeks with a visit to his brother's grave. "I let him know what's going on and make sure there are no weeds popping up," he said. "He's part of why I do what I do with the children."

Lonon, 48, said he will continue to volunteer for the foreseeable future. "I think God put me here, because I have a love for kids," he said. "When I get around them, I'm one of them."

HE STARTED the "Cheese Sandwich" program after hearing a bully insult a child who didn't have lunch money. The school provided the student with a cheese sandwich, an apple and a milk. Lonon learned there were many students who ended up with cheese sandwiches. A lot of times, they just forgot their lunch money. For two years, he anonymously donated money to the school so they could have full lunches. This year, he collected money from other UPS drivers to help with the cause.

He also volunteered at the school's Garden Day and Field Day.

Lonon said he is not used to being the center of attention, but he hopes something positive comes from it. "Maybe we'll get someone out there to build us a playground," he said. "If I can morph this 15 minutes of fame into a new playground, it's worth it."