Senior citizens employ calm and wisdom with disruptive children BALTIMORE COUNTY

January 20, 1993|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Staff Writer

It's payback time for Mary Zarek, and she's happy to meet the price.

Ms. Zarek is one of 15 people in Project Relief -- created by the Baltimore County Department of Aging to supply senior-citizen volunteers to day-care centers.

"I've had so much, and I want to give something back," Ms. Zarek said. "Also, it's good for me."

The program was created last year in response to a plea from the county Office for Children.

"The Office of Children said there was a need for help for children with behavioral problems in day-care centers," said Carol Barton, coordinator of the Department of Aging's retired senior volunteer program. "Our volunteers go into the centers to be a friend to children who need special help. They also help in other ways."

There are 224 day-care centers with 20 or more children in the county, and more than 1,600 day-care homes that average about eight children each. About 25,000 county children, many of them preschoolers, are in day care from eight to 12 hours a day while their parents work.

Catherine Drayton, day-care coordinator for the Office of Children, said the impetus for the program came from county Health Department nurses.

"They asked, 'What can we do about disruptive children?'" Ms. Drayton said. "Some of them had been kicked out of five or six homes or centers because of their behavior, and the numbers were growing. These weren't bad kids, they just needed special attention."

The most serious cases are referred for counseling and therapy, but that takes three or four weeks. What to do in the meantime? Officials found the answer in the pool of resources offered by senior citizens.

"The senior volunteers help either way: by calming the disruptive child, or by handling the group while a staff member works with the child," Ms. Drayton said.

"Two-year-olds, especially, have trouble adjusting," Ms. Drayton said, "because they aren't developed socially. They're very individualistic and stubborn, and they tend to rebel. This is normal for that age, but it puts a terrific burden on the day-care staff, which might have 30 youngsters or more to handle."

About 35 percent of the children in day care in the county are from single-parent homes. Many are from homes where there is a drug or alcohol problem, according to Ms. Drayton, and these children need special treatment.

"The volunteers are bursting with energy. It's like a birthday party all the time at the centers, and very taxing," Ms. Drayton said. "A child will come over to the volunteer for comfort, just to escape the stimulation."

Some of the volunteers don't want the responsibility of handling children, but still want to volunteer in the program. "They'll make toys, rebind books, anything to contribute," Ms. Drayton said.

Last week at the Northeastern YMCA day-care center in Rosedale, youngsters aged 2 to 4 1/2 were sitting in a circle around Ms. Zarek and listening attentively while she told them about her brother, who teaches school in Alaska. Later, she and other staff members served them a snack of milk and dry cereal. Ms. Zarek also reads to the children, and helps staff members organize activities.

Jeanette Koelbl, who is in charge of the 2- and 3-year-olds at Northeastern, said, "They know Miss Mary comes on Mondays. They rush up to her as she comes in the door to tell her what they did over the weekend."

Ms. Zarek, 62 and a mother of four, spends 2 1/2 hours at the center each Monday. She also volunteers one day a week at Franklin Square hospital.

She meets once a month with other day-care volunteers to talk about ways to handle difficult children, although a background in child care is not necessary to the job.

"Being a mother and grandmother should be enough training," she says, but a training program is in place for the volunteers, who receive a day of instruction when they enter the program, along with books on child care and tips from a child psychologist on how to handle disruptive children.

Harriet Steinberg, Project Relief coordinator, is in charge of training and placement of volunteers. "We want to get them so well-trained that they will be able to handle a group while the professional handles a disruptive child," she said.

Project Relief, which is funded by a $5,000 grant from a federal agency, has drawn mostly retired teachers so far, but Ms. Steinberg hopes that a drive now under way will greatly increase the volunteers' numbers and diversity.

"The volunteers we have are just the nucleus of what we hope will become a large group of people willing to commit two or three hours a week to day-care centers," Ms. Steinberg said.

Most will be assigned to centers near their homes.

To volunteer for Project Relief, call Carol Barton at (410) 887-4141, or Harriet Steinberg at 358-5538.

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