BY MARCIA JAFFE / AJT //
F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong. There are “second acts.”
Fear of retirement, or of simply not having enough stimulating activities, is on the minds of many healthy middle-aged folks.
Right before I retired from a fast paced 50-hour-a-week career, I composed a notebook of lists of specific things I would accomplish with the free time. The list looked something like this: learn to re-use my sewing machine, grow herbs, take pole dancing, Torah study, get a bike that doesn’t have the brakes on the handles, read five books a week, learn about fine wine and how to use e-bay, attend the Passover Seder in Shanghai.
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There was even a list listing the lists.
Truth be told now, I am so busy I don’t see how I ever worked. I wake up short of hyperventilating just to fit in retirement.
But the biggest notion of all was volunteer work! Where to start? Shepard Center? Humane Society? Reading for the blind? I called Jewish Family Services twice to coach people on job hunting and interviewing and never got a call back.
I tried volunteering for the horse therapy program at Chastain. I couldn’t keep up with hoisting the blanket and saddle; never mind that the horse might kick me in the face while I was brushing his derriere. Actually, the program is a fine one; the point being you may have to fish around to find the right fit.
A few of us, like my retired gynecologist Gerry Rehert, scrambled to evaluate where we could make the biggest impact and be the least tied down to any constrictive schedule that would limit our ability to travel.
Would it be best to give an hour a week to eight organizations, or give eight hours a week to one organization and really shape it?
My sister, Susan Caller, a retired teacher and an “A” ranked tennis enthusiast, took her sports passion and dovetailed it into volunteer work. For 15 years she has coordinated weekly Wheelchair Tennis sessions.
Mostly children, but some adults, meet at Blackburn Tennis Center with her and other volunteers, who throw balls, swing racquets, and compliment various levels of capabilities. The smiles glow when they hit a sweet spot-shot, right over the net. Susan wears costumes, brings pizza and keeps things lively. Volunteers leave feeling blessed to have a healthy family; and admiring the parents who advocate so bravely for these children.
I have always had a soft place in my heart for seniors. Many of us have memories of our Bubbies, Zaydies, and parents, whom perhaps we didn’t treasure as much as we should have – given we were busy living our own lives.
And I harbor a sympathetic fear of being alone in a nursing home without young people around. I use the word “young” loosely, because when I leave the Bremen Home after volunteer visits, I feel young and appreciative of adventures waiting on the “outside,” while I am still able bodied.
So on my checklist, I have the back end covered; but what about the front end, helping plant seeds for youths to get a better start?
LEADERS ARE READERS
Enter Merle Smith. As an adjunct to Temple Sinai’s relationship with the Atlanta Jewish Coalition for Literacy (JCL), Merle involved me as a tutor in Sandy Springs Title 1 elementary schools (in my day, we called them grammar schools). Title 1 is defined by the percentage of children on free or reduced lunch programs.
Today, there are 108 reading tutors in seven primarily Hispanic schools. The volunteers range from retired teachers (the “naturals”) to physicians, artists, retired professors, lawyers, real estate professionals and business people.
Thus far, my volunteer work had been at the Bremen Home with seniors; I knew little about reading to first graders, except that which I did with my own children.
Merle, who holds a Masters Degree and has been a private tutor in developmental reading for the past 40 years, joined the JCL through the National Council of Jewish Women in 2010 to help train and motivate tutors.
According to Merle, “The coaching experience is the most effective in building the relationship and self confidence of the child, many of whom have parents who are too busy with multiple jobs or lacking in English skills to provide an optimal learning situation.”
Merle is calm and soft spoken which enables her to steer the tutors along. She also states that the coaches get as much out of it as the students when they progress, such as watching them pass a test at the end of the year to advance to the next grade. She says that “early intervention and one-on-one tutoring” are the key.
Merle also oversees book donations and a Lunch ‘N Learn programs to enhance tutors’ skills.
This past summer, for the first time, Merle started a trial program at the Sandy Springs Library, wherein we saw 20 students. It was an admirable feat, considering the parents had to supply transportation.
Starting this adventure last year, I passed the background check as well as a course on child abuse, which is not a light topic. I spent the first few sessions worried that the child would touch my shoulder or sit too close; and I recoiled when they went to hug me “goodbye.”
My 2012 teacher at Highpoint Elementary, Lori Simon, couldn’t understand why the kids tripped over each other to get to go in the teacher’s lounge with me; then I showed her my bag of toys from the Dollar Store. Not to mention, the times that she didn’t see me enter the room (and I happened to be wearing slacks), I would stand on my head on a nap mat. That certainly got everyone’s attention.
OUT OF THE MOUTH OF BABES
This all reminded me of Art Linkletter’s Book decades ago, “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” And they do. Last week a third grade boy asked me if I was, “rich.”
I said, “Well, I have a comfy bed, yummy food, and a red car. So I guess, yes, I am.”
“What about you. Are you rich?”
He nodded his head, “Yes, me too,” with a delightful naivety.
Thus we defined our terms and proceeded to learn the words associated with beak shapes in birds related to the types of food they eat.
I urged my buddy, Dr. Jerry Rehert, a retired OB-GYN, to start with the program last summer at the library. Jerry took his student very seriously; from the thousands of choices, the little boy selected a book with a Jewish theme. I watched Jerry explain what a rabbi was to the child who never knew other religions existed. But as Merle said, “It’s all about the relationship.”
This year at Lake Forrest, Jerry says there are set backs; two steps forward, one step back. He was teaching the child to sound out the word “hold.”
“He got it easily; then two minutes later when quizzed, forgot he ever saw it!” exclaimed Dr. R.
Also at the Library, Donna Schacher was assigned a family: mother, father, and three children ages 2, 4, and 7. To Donna’s surprise, only the 7-year-old spoke English!
She taught the five of them colors and songs through flash cards. Donna exclaimed, “At one point I had half the library reciting, ‘Ten Little Monkeys.’ I don’t know who had more fun. I loved every minute!”
Retired teacher Yvonne Cohen derives great pleasure from seeing her students succeed. She finds that the kids, “really want to work; though sometimes they get a bit antsy.” She communicates with the teachers through notes on what each child needs to focus for that session. After the hour, she sends a note back on how things went. She makes them “push for evidence” and prove how they got their answers.
On the geriatric end (though you wouldn’t know it) is Arthur Harris, co-founder of Spa Sydell. Arthur got his BA in English at age 81 and his Masters at 83. He was on the cover of the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Living Section when this occurred.
Now he says that, at 87 years on this planet (does that imply he was on another planet?), he is having fun tutoring at Garden Hills Elementary: “I have had little or no contact with little ones for many years; and my two students are pressing buttons I forgot I had,” he said.
One of the most experienced tutors is Susan Sommer, who has a Masters in Reading and worked with the same program in Upstate New York for 10 years; then six years in Atlanta. She stays at Highpoint all day, one day a week, and recruits new tutors with Etz Chaim as her base.
She conducts positive sessions, where every week she works at transforming behavior. “Boy, you sat up so tall today; You did so well with your ‘B’ letters today; And you can see them light up,” she enthuses.
She cherishes that the teachers are so appreciative, since they have 30 students, 20 of whom may need special help starting with the ESOL challenge.
“Some students just need confidence being in their new situation to catch up quickly and mainstream,” Sommer says.
Susan had a child ask her to write down the day of the week that she comes to visit. She said, “Thursday. Why?”
He said, “Because I am never going to miss a Thursday coming to school.”
The trick says Susan, is to get them to relax and trust the mentor who is not judging them.
Amy Arno, Director of Sales and Development for a local media chain, is in her second year and, says she “loves to see the light bulb go on when the student masters an assignment.”
She is very “hands on” and feels the impact she makes by developing trust quickly. She brings in her own children’s favorite books, and had her daughter read to the class.
“Ms. Amy” is known for her games: using her cell phone to show pictures, throwing dice for words, counting tricks and employing index cards. She also takes this chance to expose them to a slice of Judaism.
Amy does accept hugs. She was even caught in a fire drill, wherein she marched outside and continued her games, regardless.
Local Charleston-ian transplant, Sam Appel, has tutored at both Hightower and Lake Forest over the past three years. Sam, a retired lawyer, gets fired up when he sees each student to determine an approach.
“Each child is different. I may spend the whole session on the ‘ch’ sound,” he explains. When one comes in sleepy and reluctant to read, Sam may start with a rousing rendition of “When You’re Smiling.” He finds it rewarding when a child wants to stay longer with him.
Sam is heavy on the WOW stickers and avuncular praise. Likewise, he was very touched by a family who sent a $5 tip through the student, which he refused. Moved by the gesture, Sam told the child he was a volunteer and would get “fired” if he took the money.
Angela Kirby, a retired kindergarten teacher, gives out free books to her students at Hightower. She focuses on phonemic awareness, letter-sound association, sight words (when vs. win), name writing, and colors. She sees “unbelievable improvement” in her students by making them feel better about themselves.
Ms. Kirby interacts with the teacher and brings in intriguing things to class like odd shaped gourds for fall.
MORE THAN JUST LETTERS
Teaching words is important; but we do become involved in trying to mentor these kids in life’s lessons as well, with a desire to reach out.
Last year, a homeless girl came to school in the same clothes, not just when I saw her; but everyday according to the teacher. It could not bode well for that child’s self esteem.
My adult daughter agreed to raid her closet back home and packed up sacks of Uggs, Nikes, jeans, fleece jackets, some nicer things mixed in. Of course we did not want to be identified as the donor, and asked the social worker to send it home with the child.
Two months went by, and the school called to come retrieve the clothes, as they were not able to contact the parents to accept it.
Another tutor did get her clothes donation sent home. When the child continued to wear the same old clothing, she stated that her parents sold the clothes. The news so tragically jolted to us.
TAKE THE TIME
Children can get off-task during the short time we have with them. The schools now have big, wonderful “reading” dogs that the kids adore. Their eyes wander as the dogs sway by or doors open and close.
So I said, “When you have a job to do, keep your eyes glued to your own paper and don’t waste time being a ‘lookie bird.’” We both sang out, “I am not a lookie bird!” Next week she said, “I glued my ‘eye’ to the test and did not look up when Juan broke his pencil. I am not a lookie bird.”
And we flapped our pretend wings. Score one for a small lesson!
We all have something to offer a child who never had anyone read to her.
If you wish to donate as little as an hour a week, call Kim Urbach at the National Council Office (404) 843-9600 and give coaching a try. Flap your wings, too.
About the writer
After 35 years with the Atlanta Newspapers, Marcia Jaffe currently serves as Retail VP for the Buckhead Business Association where she delivers news and trends (laced with a little gossip). On the side, Marcia is Captain of the Senior Cheerleaders for the WNBA at Philips Arena.