'In every way, we will miss her'

After 18 years of helping youngsters with emotional difficulties, 'foster grandparent' Bessie Knight retires

June 08, 2008|By Jasmine Jernberg | Jasmine Jernberg,Sun reporter

After 18 years of singing "This Old Man," helping with math assignments and quietly soothing some of the most troubled children in Anne Arundel County schools, Bessie Knight just finished her last day of class.

Knight, 84, retired Friday as a "foster grandparent" volunteer at the Phoenix Center in Annapolis, where she was known for her cheeriness and her ease and gentle demeanor with the students, all of whom have emotional problems.

"She knows how to calm them," said Pamela Magee, the teacher with whom Knight has worked for the past 11 years. "They respect her and are protective of her."

In classrooms of 8- to 12-year-olds, "Grandma Knight" was with students five mornings a week.

"These kids like to have the same thing every day," said Magee. "She is part of their routine; she makes them feel safe."

Knight also helped staff members file papers, grade assignments and make copies, a task she particularly enjoyed. Knight was known for whipping out her digital camera and catching the students' special moments, such as their butterfly release or science projects.

"In every way, we will miss her," said Magee. "She's a part of Phoenix."

Knight learned about the Anne Arundel County Department of Aging and Disabilities' Foster Grandparent program when her sister became a volunteer. After her husband became ill and was in the hospital and one of her grandsons began attending day care, Knight found herself alone. She didn't like sitting around.

She followed up with the program and was assigned to the Phoenix Center, where she made a good impression right away.

"Everyone was so good to me," Knight said.

The school has fewer than 100 students, from elementary to high school, with problems including hyperactivity, withdrawal, learning disabilities and aggression. Behavioral outbursts aren't uncommon; Annapolis police reported responding to 48 calls this academic year.

Knight never felt threatened, and said her love for the children and the respect and care they gave her in return kept her there. But as her 85th birthday approaches, Knight concedes that she does not move as quickly as she used to and has recently had health problems, including hip replacement and knee operations.

Nicole Becerra, coordinator of the county's Foster Grandparents program, said she is sad to see Knight leave.

"She was one of my grannies that I really liked," Becerra said.

Becerra said the students and staff are "heartbroken" by Knight's departure.

"They all just love her there," she said. "They really felt a connection with Ms. Knight. She really loved it too."

The Foster Grandparents program has 53 volunteers, 12 of whom have been in the program for more than a decade. Though many of the volunteers stay many years, Knight's longevity at the Phoenix Center is unique. Becerra said Knight was a particularly good fit, and the school has found few others so well-suited to serve there.

After leaving, Knight expects to spend more time with her large family, which includes four children, eight grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren, and her first great-great-grandchild, born this year.

"They keep me going," she says.

She also loves learning more about her new computer and digital camera and snapping shots of her family and neighbors.

"She's a digital queen. She figures all that stuff out," Magee said.

jasmine.jernberg@baltsun.com

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