Older volunteers do good for schools and for their own health, studies find

April 14, 2009|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,liz.bowie@baltsun.com

Three days each week, Frances Gill immerses herself in a third-grade classroom in West Baltimore, usually plopping down next to a small figure working diligently to do a math problem or write a sentence.

For 15 hours a week, she helps out at James Mosher Elementary School, spreading little bits of encouragement here or helping keep a wandering mind focused there. Gill is a member of the Experience Corps, paid volunteers whose work has been found to have significant benefits in inner-city schools. But it turns out what she is doing isn't just good for the school. It is good for her health, too.

In a study released last week, researchers found that students in Experience Corps classrooms showed significant gains in reading comprehension and sounding out words, compared with students in control classrooms. The researchers from Washington University in St. Louis followed more than 800 first-, second- and third-graders at 23 elementary schools in cities other than Baltimore.

Other studies conducted by that university and by the Johns Hopkins University suggested that Experience Corps volunteers were much healthier physically and mentally than their peers.

Hopkins published the most recent findings last month in The Journal of Gerontology after following Experience Corps volunteers - primarily African-American women age 60 and older - over a period of years.

It makes sense to Gill, 72, who says helping the students has kept her learning. "It keeps you alert because they know a lot of things," she said. On a recent day in the classroom, Gill worked quietly with a boy for a half-hour as he made his way through addition and subtraction problems, arranging numbers from least to greatest.

Students said they like the Experience Corps volunteers in their classrooms. "They are fun. She makes us laugh," second-grader Kayla Langley said of one of the volunteers.

The children often treat Gill like a grandmother, sidling up to read next to her or letting go of the intimate details of their family lives. "They come up to you, and they are leaning on you like a parent. They want to hug you. They are just lovable," Gill said.

Gill had always thought she would become a teacher, but that idea got sidetracked as she married, raised five children, got her MBA and had a 26-year career with AT&T.

She joined Experience Corps last fall after recovering from breast cancer, and she likes it so much she expects to continue in the fall. The kids keep her moving, she said, and her arthritis seems to diminish.

Experience Corps is a national service program that places people age 55 and older in elementary classrooms. The volunteers are given at least 30 hours of training before they start and must commit to being in a school 15 hours a week for an entire school year. They are paid a $2,800 stipend, mostly to offset the cost of gas and school lunches.

Baltimore has the largest Experience Corps program in the nation, with more than 300 members in 19 schools. Each school has at least 15 Experience Corps members assigned to kindergarten through third grade to ensure that a school is saturated with extra help in the early years. Since the tutors began, schools have documented a decline in officer referrals and suspensions, as well as calmer school climates.

The Washington University study - which surveyed Experience Corps members at intervals over a period of years in Boston, New York and Port Arthur, Texas, and then compared their health to those in an unrelated national study - showed that the volunteers had decreases in depression and functional limitations, while the average person's health in those areas declined.

About two-thirds of the Experience Corps volunteers who had said they weren't very active before they began volunteering said that they had become more physically active and more "engaged in social and community events."

Richard A. Fryer is 76. "I feel like I am 46 because I am working with Experience Corps," he said. "When you are with 24 kids three days a week, you are not just sitting on your thumbs. It keeps me active and keeps me physically more fit."

Fryer, a retired civil engineer who lives in Baltimore County, has volunteered for four years in different schools. He is now at Brehms Lane Elementary in East Baltimore.

As a youngster, he struggled in school. "The problem I remember was that there was never anybody to help you if you were falling behind," Fryer said.

Now he hopes to provide that help.

Unlike Fryer and Gill, about half of the participants live near where they volunteer, according to Sylvia McGill, director of the Baltimore Experience Corps. She said those volunteers become a valuable resource for the neighborhood because they often see the children on the streets. They watch out for them even as they move on to middle and high school.

Doris Moody of West Baltimore has had children and grandchildren go through James Mosher Elementary. After retiring from the Department of Social Services, she is helping out in the classroom. "You can always learn something from the children," she said.

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