Weekly school visits energize seniors in Richfield

Mary Haws reads to students at the Richfield STEM School. (Photo by Andrew Wig – Sun Newspapers)

Octogenarian volunteers have found an outlet for their youthful spirit at Richfield Science Technology Engineering and Math School.

“It’s kind of like getting recharged,” said Barb Haws, one of the senior-citizen volunteers who make regular visits to Barb Thies’s second-grade class. Each Wednesday they arrive for a simple task: They open up a book and read out loud with companions about 80 years their junior.

Thies’s class is down to 27 students from the 30 she started the year with, but with her hands still full, she still appreciates the extra help. “They definitely make progress with their reading,” she said of the students she selects to read with the seniors because they read below grade level.

The two volunteers in the library reading with students on a recent Wednesday were both former teachers, and they have noticed some major changes from when they led classrooms in different districts.

They notice more diverse class populations, where special education students are “mainstreamed” into regular classes, where white students only make up about a third of the population, and where the language the teacher speaks is often not what the parents speak, something that is often notable as soon as they crack a book.

“We start with a lot of kids who really have great trouble with English,” said Barb Wright, one of the volunteers.

The volunteers said they have learned from the diversity of race, language and culture in Richfield. Mary Haws had one struggling student who “spoke two different languages at home, but none was English,” she said. “That taught me something.”

Wright remembers another student who questioned necessity of learning how to read. She said she told him he needed to learn to read in order to get a job. “He said, ‘No, my dad can’t read and he’s got a job.’ He said, ‘I can clean like my dad,’” Wright recounted.

But the women work with the students often times for an entire school year to get them up to speed, taking advantage of the children’s age, which they feel still gives them a chance to make a strong influence.

“This brings you back down where children are learning,” Haws said. “At this age in the second grade, they’re pretty pliable.”

The other part about it, is, “they are fun,” Wright said. “And funny. They’ll say anything.”

This is what makes it worth it for the volunteers. “We do it for selfish reasons,” admitted Wright.

Wright’s nine grandchildren are grown, as are Haws’ 13. Wright and Haws raised eight and five of their own children, respectively.

“We just don’t hang out with this age otherwise,” Wright said, “and this was what we once hung out with all the time.”

She never got tired of it. “I prefer them to old people any day,” Wright said.

And the volunteers see simply “hanging out” as a major part of their job. Sometimes the students just need some attention.

“People don’t have a lot of time anymore,” Haws said, “and I think that on-on-one time for some of these (kids) is very important.”

They make sure not to sound too judgmental, though. “We’re not blaming anybody; it’s just a fact,” Haws said.

Plus, seniors like Haws and Wright have the resources to help address the lack of attention among some young learners. “We’ve got time,” Wright said.

Thies noted the increasing class sizes in describing the need for help at the school. “We would love about 100 more seniors to help out in the school,” she said. “because we have plenty of customers.”