Classroom Elders

Seniors Volunteer their Talents to Local Schools and Students

By Dawn Onley | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 08.26.19 – Feature, Lifestyles

Mary Jones and Anne Truffer have been neighbors and friends for years. Now, in retirement, they spend Thursday mornings during the school year volunteering in Sandra Chapin’s kindergarten class at Ballenger Creek Elementary School, teaching students how to read high-frequency words and to solve basic math problems.

They work in a small area off to the side in the classroom, each taking one child, while the majority of the class follows the teacher’s instructions. On this day, one girl runs up and hugs them. Chapin then gives the volunteers the assignments for the class.

Jones helps one student learn his “sight” words, the building blocks of language that have to be memorized because they often do not fit standard phonetic patterns and can be difficult for new readers to decode.

“It’s hard,” the student says.

“It’s not hard,” she gently replies. “Tell me the letter it begins with.”

The boy looks at the word and says the wrong letter. Jones asks him to sound out the word.

“You’re guessing. I can’t have guessing. … We do these each week and they have their own word cards in their reading folders,” she explains.

“What’s that letter?” Jones asks a new student now, point-ing to the first letter in the word “come.”

“C,” the child responds.

“What does C say? What sound does it make?”

“Come” the child replies.

“Excellent!” Jones says.

Volunteers in their golden years can be found throughout Frederick County classrooms. They are there to provide help to both students and staff on an array of tasks in a supportive environment. And while students and teachers are the main winners of this free service, you can also count Jones and Truffer among the beneficiaries.

“I’m a retired teacher. I guess school is my happy place,” says Jones, now in her third year volunteering at Ballenger Creek in Chapin’s class. “I enjoy coming in and being with the children. I enjoy seeing them progressing every week. You really get to know them.”

Truffer, meanwhile, instructs her student on how to solve addition problems by using sand—a learning technique that immediately draws in children because it’s sensory and feels like fun. “I love being with the children,” she says. “It’s fun to see their happy faces.”

Although not as a teacher, Truffer has spent much of her life around children as a mother, grandmother, Girl Scout leader and Boy Scout leader. She relishes her time with young people and notes the changes over the years. “Kindergarten is so different than it used to be,” she says, pointing out how advanced the children are now and how many skills are covered. The two women reminisce about the days of half-day kindergarten when students didn’t have as many scholastic requirements as they do today.

Kristen Canning, principal at Ballenger Creek and also Jones’ daughter, says volunteers like Jones and Truffer are important ingredients to a school’s success because they help teachers to better manage their classrooms and to ensure no child is lacking important skills.

“We have one teacher per classroom of 20-25 students in a class. If your goal is to give every child the attention they need,” then the added help is needed, Canning says. “It’s such a mutually beneficial situation. Older people love young people and young people love to be loved.”

“A Real Blessing”

About a dozen elderly volunteers from Homewood retirement community are known as the Sunshine Readers for the vibrancy they bring to Brunswick Elementary School students. They hop on the Homewood bus and are shuttled to Brunswick to volunteer one morning each week, helping first-graders perfect their reading and hone their spelling skills. The volunteers read books and help the youngsters phonetically sound out words.

The students, who are hand-selected by their teachers for the one-on-one time with the volunteers, pay attention. “They notice everything,” says Maggi Hartzell, 93, drawing chuckles from other volunteers. “None of them have counted the wrinkles on my face but they count the veins on my hand.”

“I like to watch the children interact with each other,” Hartzell adds. “Some classes, you have young ones who haven’t had as much discipline. Other times, you see well-behaved children wanting to learn. It’s fascinating to see how the teacher organizes this.”

Susie Lucas, Brunswick Elementary School liaison, was instrumental in coordinating the partnership with Homewood. Lucas says the children have an admiration for the seniors and really develop important relationships with them over the school year, even presenting them with hand-crafted gifts at the end of the school year. “They make little presents for you,” explains 92-year-old Dot Ballenberger. “I have little rocks that say, ‘I love you.’”

The relationship all started more than a decade ago, when Homewood sent out an email to Frederick County Public Schools to inform them that some of their seniors would be willing to volun-teer in an elementary school class-room and help the children with basic reading and math skills. The only school to take them up on the offer was Brunswick Elementary and Sunshine Readers was born.

“Every year, you establish new relationships with each of your children,” explains Terry Higgins, 77, who has previously worked with kindergarteners. “The beauty of [kindergarten] is to watch them in the beginning. Some don’t know their ABCs, and by the end of the year, they are reading to me.”

Higgins’ twin sister, Sherry Hubbard, is also a Sunshine Reader volunteer. She says she enjoys so many aspects of volunteering at Brunswick. “One of the most rewarding things for me, besides the development of the children throughout the year, is when Susie brings them to the cafeteria and you see these big smiles on their faces. Every once in a while, someone runs to the person,” Hubbard says.

Barbara Bell, 78, is a retired reading specialist who taught junior high school. Now, she is brightening small children’s days with specialized tutoring. “Working with these little ones has been a real blessing. I thoroughly enjoy it,” Bell says.

Liz Kannenberg, volunteer director at Homewood, says one of the biggest benefits of Sunshine Readers is the intergenerational connection that both the seniors and the children are nurturing. Homewood sends its independent-living volunteers to Brunswick, but the community also has an arrangement with Monocacy Elementary School, where some of its assisted-living/healthcare residents volunteer weekly. Included among the Monocacy volunteers is one Homewood resident who will be 100 next month.

Kannenberg says the inter-action is good for the volunteers “not only to get out and off campus, but to be involved in something they feel that has meaning.”

“This is a Privilege”

James “Pete” Brown, 72, certainly loves kids. He worked for years as an electrician for the school board, where he was assigned a cluster of schools to maintain, but retired in 2018. He says it felt natural for him to come back to Spring Ridge Elementary to volunteer, which was one of his assigned schools when he was an employee.

“On Tuesdays and Fridays, I come in at 9 a.m. when the school opens and I go to the media center and shelve books,” Brown says. “I put books back on the shelves. And then at about 10:30, I go to one of two class-rooms and work with kids doing the sight words that they need to know when they are done the first grade—both reading them and spelling them. It’s one-on-one. The teacher will give me a list of students that she thinks needs help and they give me different media to work with—magnetic boards, sand, Play-Doh—just to help the kids and make it more enjoyable.”

Brown, who is married to a retired New Market Middle School teacher, says he got the gig by making friends with teachers and letting them know that he’d like to volunteer when he retired. They took him up on his offer.

“They said we could use you in the classroom,” Brown recalls. “I just saw a need and I didn’t want to just come for an hour a day. So, I thought I’d go to help because there’s always books to put away so I just come in and do that.”

He says he also does administrative work such as collect folders from classrooms and put fliers from the PTA or important letters to parents inside of them.

Richard Holter, 91, has been a volunteer for about a decade. One of Homewood’s Sunshine Readers, Holter says he has worked in at least three schools over the years but enjoys helping out at Brunswick Elementary the most. He credits a lot of this to Lucas’ organizational skills and attention to detail.

Hubbard says the responses the volunteers get from the children show how valued they are.

“We are having an impact on their lives,” he says. “Being there, having this special person just for them … they are getting individualized attention. They kind of have a captive audience. They know your time is their time.”

One student in particular touched his heart.

“I have one experience with a girl who came to my class and you could tell she would like to be anywhere else. She wouldn’t say a thing. You had to pull to get a word out of her,” Holter recalls.

By the end of the school year, that had dramatically changed.

“She brought me a real nice note at the end of the year, thanking me. She even came back to see me a year later,” he says. “And another time, a family came here to Homewood to visit me.”

“This is a privilege to be able to do.”