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My Time by Abigail Trafford

Crucial Lessons, In a Time of Need

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, November 16, 2004; Page HE01

CLEVELAND -- The first thing you notice about this city is that there's no traffic, not even at rush hour. Euclid Avenue, the grand downtown boulevard, is deserted. Block after block are boarded-up storefronts.

Cleveland is a city on the critical list. The jobs are gone.

Ohio has lost more than a third of all the jobs that were lost in the nation since 2000. Average home prices are in decline. More than 30 percent of the city lives in poverty.

At the Marion Sherman Elementary School, Mildred Lowe, 67, is trying to halt the decline. She sits along a corridor wall with a first-grader and teaches him to read. She's a volunteer with RSVP -- Retired Senior Volunteer Program.

Lowe, a widow, is Old Cleveland. Her grandfather went to this school. She and her husband used to run a grocery store in the neighborhood. And she knows about hard times. As she says: "We know how to make cornbread out of water."

Now her sons are grown. She's come to that point in her life where she wants to give back to her community. "I don't have money to give. I can give back my time."

So she tutors students four days a week. Good thing, too.

This school is in trouble. All after-school programs have been canceled. Five teachers have just been laid off. The nurse has been cut back to one day a week. So have the speech therapist and the social worker.

The few computers for students don't work because there is no money for maintenance. Supplies are so short that the teacher has to bring in pencils for her students.

Lowe perseveres. "You really have to have an education," she says. "When you're at the bottom, there's no way but up. That's what I tell my students."

She coaches them on phonics, encourages them to learn. As she tells her students: "Invite me to your graduation. Even if I'm in a wheelchair, I'll come."

Pediatrician George L. McPherson, 63, teaches reading at George Washington Carver Elementary School. He retired recently after 30 years of practice where he saw that many of his patients' problems were related to school. Now he wants every child who gets to the third grade to be able to read.

McPherson and Lowe belong to a new generation of volunteers -- older men and women who work in the schools in return for a small stipend and benefits such as a tuition credit. McPherson, for example, used his credit to get training in gerontology. Other volunteers pass the credit on to their grandchildren.

In their work, these volunteers are changing the public face of aging. Instead of being a seen mainly as a problem, older men and women are viewed as an asset. They have the potential to address many of the nation's problems from embattled schools to frayed health care networks.

McPherson and Lowe have their finger in the dike of education. And it's not a small hole that volunteers are filling. The whole dike is crumbling, they say. They make up for the lack of special education teachers to work with children with learning disabilities. They take on the role of social worker for students with behavior problems. They are substituting for teachers who can't give individual kids the attention that they need.

"What we're doing should be supplementary," says McPherson. "We should not do what is the government's responsibility to do."

But that's not stopping Lowe and McPherson. "If you wait for the government to do it, you lose a generation of children," continues McPherson. "These are core programs -- we will find a way to do them ourselves."

And so, this troupe of teachers' aides and tutors is trying to make sure that every child gets ahead. Surveys by RSVP indicate that more than 90 percent of the students tutored improved their reading skills and gained self-confidence.

Hanging on the wall at Marion Sherman is a large sign: "RSVP Tutors/Warm Our Hearts."

There's a bonus for Lowe and McPherson, too. Community service is known to improve the health of the volunteers. A study by Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions found that older adults who volunteer in troubled schools improved mental and physical health. "Giving back to your community may slow the aging process," concluded physician Linda P. Fried, author of the two-year pilot study that followed 128 volunteers, aged 60 to 86, and compared them with a control group of people who were not engaged in community service. The volunteers, predominantly African-American women, worked in six Baltimore public schools.

The problem is supply and demand. There are too few volunteers to meet the needs of the schools. Lowe and McPherson are part of a national tutoring program, Experience Corps, that is administered in Cleveland by RSVP. But the Cleveland program of 200 tutors can serve only 12 of the city's 82 elementary schools.

The other schools are left behind. What's happening at Marion Sherman is a wake-up call for the whole country.

There needs to be a significant expansion of public service programs that tap the talents of older Americans to help the young. •

Are you in transition? Have you found your what-next? Are your primary relationships changing? Respond by e-mail to mytime@washpost.com. To send U.S. mail, see the address on Page F2; mark the envelope "My Time."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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