David Allen paced the elementary school cafeteria, a dishrag in one hand and sets of plastic ware in the other, stopping to open milk cartons and chat with the children.
Wednesday had finally rolled around, and the San Carlos Park Elementary students were thrilled to see the bespectacled older man with the white beard, who walked around asking about their days and making them laugh. They had looked forward to his arrival.
"Mr. Allen, did you figure it out?" asked a girl at one of the tables, who looked up at him with a wide smile. "Did you figure out my nickname?"
"I haven't got one yet," he told her. "But I'm working on it."
Allen is the grandfather of one of the students, a 6-year-old first grader named Zoe. But on Wednesdays, he's "everybody's papa," because he's one of the school's Watch Dogs.
The group of 45 dads, grandpas, uncles and other men stop by San Carlos Park Elementary when they can to lend a hand to the teachers and interact with the students. Launched this fall, the Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads Of Great Students) program is aimed at increasing safety and providing male role models, especially to the boys at the school.
"You look up to people that are like you," school Principal Aida Saldivar said.
Allen, a retired firefighter and father of one of the teachers, is popular among all the students, both boys and girls. Saldivar said a Watch Dog can impact more than 100 students in a single visit.
After running a lap around a baseball field at gym class, two of the students handed him flowers they'd picked along the way. He gave a handful of them nicknames — a boy on the dance team is Twinkle Toes; a girl with a face full of freckles is Rusty — and now they all want one.
They have a nickname for him, too.
"You can call him Santa," said 9-year-old Brooke Dunn.
Allen and the other men involved in the program say they enjoy the chance to get into the school and work with the children. That role has traditionally been filled by women, but the Watch D.O.G.S. program, which began in 1998 at a school in Springdale, Ark., is changing that.
More than 2,600 schools in 42 states now have dads, grandfathers, uncles and other men helping with arrival and dismissal, doing lunch duty, helping on playgrounds and mentoring students, according to the organization. They fill out applications and are screened before starting at school, and wear shirts identifying them as Watch Dogs.
In previous years, one or two men, including Allen, came in to help at San Carlos Park Elementary, parent Suzanne Cholari said. But other than that, it was mostly moms.
She stepped up as coordinator of the Watch D.O.G.S. program, believing that any positive male role models would benefit the children — and that men would be eager to help.
"I think that there are a lot of men who would love to be involved at the school, too, but they just don't know where to start," Cholari said. "So what better way to give that to them than this program that is especially for them?"
Bill Dattilo, a father of two at San Carlos Park Elementary, visits the school before work every Friday to help unload students from their parents' cars. He plans to start coming once a month for half-days.
To him, it's a chance to show his sons he cares.
"It's really telling them that as I grow up, my dad is there for me," Dattilo said.
At the same time, the other students benefit. Dattilo said five or six children have asked him to be their personal Watch Dog.
When that happens, "you better make sure you memorize their name and greet them every time, because it's almost like having another son or a daughter," he said.
Allen knows firsthand the impact a male role model can have. His dad died when he was in third grade.
After that, the men he saw regularly — his football coach, scoutmaster, church minister and next door neighbor — had a "tremendous impact" on his life, likely without even realizing it.
"Just seeing them and being around them and seeing how they acted made me understand that that's how I was supposed to act," Allen said. "Even though they didn't actually come out and say that, it was just the example that they set.
"And I try to keep that in mind and set that same example."
That means he chose the golf shirt over the T-shirt offered by the program, and always wears dress pants and shoes. He encourages the students to eat lunch before dessert, pay attention in class and work hard at school, but still have fun.
One of the children he mentors, a third-grade boy, has had a complete change of attitude, Allen said. Once uninterested in school, he's now "crazy" about anything to do with outer space and seems to enjoy school.
"Sometimes it's a word of encouragement, sometimes it's maybe a stern comment, like, 'You better watch out or you're going to get in trouble,' something like that," Allen said. "Either way, just the right word at the right time makes a big difference, I think. And for whatever reason, it seems to work."To learn more about the Watch D.O.G.S. program go to www.fathers.com/watchdogs