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Senior volunteers keep school and community connected

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Bea Finke might be retired from teaching, but she still helps students learn.

One day a week, she volunteers to work with first-graders at Washington Elementary School in Mt. Lebanon.

"It's like being grandma. You go in, you work with the children, and everything is fun and happy," said Finke, 75, of Mt. Lebanon. "Then you say goodbye, and you leave all the hard work to the teacher."

Finke is part of a growing trend. The number of seniors volunteering in schools and other educational or youth organizations has jumped 26.7 percent between September 2005 and September 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Bob Furman, director of Duquesne University's principal certification program, said students can learn a lot from people like Finke.

"These older folks are like living libraries. They have a lot of experiences, and they can help students understand life much better," said Furman, who encouraged senior citizens to volunteer when he was a principal in the Upper St. Clair School District. "They are the taxpaying public, so getting them engaged in school operations helps them see where their money is going and the challenges of working with children today."

School officials say their help is invaluable.

"It's hard meeting all the children's needs at one time," said Dawn McPaul, a first-grade teacher at McAnnulty Elementary in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District. "As a teacher, any little bit of help is huge."

Dawn's grandmother, Grace McPaul of Whitehall, has worked with students in her first-grade classroom three days a week for the past six years.

McPaul, who is in her 80s, listens to children read, helps with make-up tests and works with students who need a little extra help.

She started out volunteering for a half-day one day a week and took on more because she'd rather work with the kids than "just sit at home all day," she said.

"I like seeing the kids and helping them. I feel like I'm a little bit younger."

The bond the children forge with the volunteers is just as important as what they're learning, said Mariellen Kerr, counselor at Chartiers Valley Primary School in Bridgeville. She helped launch the Study Buddies program about 10 years ago.

About a dozen senior citizens volunteer at least two days a week doing one-on-one, after-school tutoring with kindergarten through second-grade students who need extra help in reading and math.

"On the days they are to meet with their study buddy, these children are rarely absent on those days," Kerr said.

In Mt. Lebanon, Finke will join as many as 50 other people who have signed up for Xgen Xperience, a program that formalizes the district's volunteer effort.

Administrators hope it will bring even more retirees, senior citizens and working professionals into classrooms.

"We have to realize that what we're doing in the classroom is not in a vacuum," said Drew Haberberger, a physics and chemistry teacher at Mt. Lebanon High School, who was the teacher representative on the Xgen development team.

Teachers will have a searchable database through which they can contact volunteers for classroom help or to speak on topics the children are learning.

"In a lot of communities, unless you have kids in the building, a school is something you just drive by," Haberberger said. "Education is so important that we want to emphasize that (community) connection a little more."

Become a volunteer

Mt. Lebanon School District Xgen Xperience. Visit

Chartiers Valley Primary School Study Buddies. Call Mariellen Kerr at 412-429-7016.

Contact your local school district to see what volunteer programs they have available. Chances are they can use your talents, experience and expertise.

Other opportunities for seniors:

• American Red Cross Retired & Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) matches volunteers with more than 100 local nonprofits.

• Red Cross' Foster Grandparent Program gives seniors the opportunity to mentor, tutor or be caregivers to children and adolescents. Call 412-263-3100, or visit for more information.

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