Grey heads, big hearts


When Geraldine Anderson began mentoring students in a kindergarten class at Waverly Elementary School eight months ago, the 68-year-old retired Social Security worker had her doubts.

"You have to work hard with kindergartners," she said. "I couldn't get down on the floor during playtime." But now Anderson - who is proud to be dubbed "granny" by the children - can stand on her own. "It's given me energy, working here," Anderson said.

Anderson has become an enthusiastic participant in a burgeoning program that has attracted a growing number of fans among seniors, educators and community leaders in Baltimore.

Called the Baltimore Experience Corps, the effort deploys teams of volunteers ages 55 and older in the city's elementary schools.

Supported by philanthropic organizations and federal, state and city grants, Experience Corps is one of a handful of operations around the country that seek to tap the reservoir of older Americans' wisdom and experience with the aim of restoring and reinforcing community institutions.

For seniors, many of whom cringe at the phrase "old age," it offers a chance to do work that carries a greater sense of purpose than other jobs that may be available. For the students and their teachers, it provides meaningful classroom help.

"We don't want to stay at home," Anderson said.

Abby Parker, a first-year teacher at Waverly, was ambivalent about having an Experience Corps volunteer in her second-grade class. Then she met Janie Shird.

"She's been absolutely wonderful," Parker said.

Shird, 64, is a 35-year veteran of Sinai Hospital. "I went to the first day of training and I said to myself, 'This is what you need to do, Janie,'" said Shird, who calls her students "my children."

"This is an experience for me, too."

Disciplinary referrals have dipped since Shird's arrival, said Principal Will McKenna. Although Shird isn't the lone explanation, McKenna said, he believes "this program is part of the puzzle - a significant part of the puzzle."

Students in Baltimore elementary schools with Experience Corps volunteers posted higher test scores on state assessment exams than did their peers in other city schools, and they were half as likely to be exiled to the principal's office for misbehavior, a 2004 study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Schools of Medicine and Public Health showed.

The study, which assessed the work of 125 corps volunteers, also showed that 44 percent said they felt stronger and 63 percent said they were more active. They also reported watching less television and extending their social circles.

The ranks of corps volunteers in Baltimore are swelling, thanks to increased financial support by the city and enthusiastic word-of-mouth endorsements by participants and educators.

Susan Brooks, director of Experience Corps in Baltimore, said the program has doubled in the past year, with about 170 volunteers dispersed among 12 elementary schools in the city. Brooks said she hopes to add eight more schools in the coming academic year, each with 15 to 20 volunteers.

The program's popularity is in part a response to the Johns Hopkins study.

"Most programs have not been able to provide evidence that enlisting older adults, through paid and unpaid positions, has direct and demonstrable impacts on serious social problems," said Greg O'Neill of the Gerontological Society of America.

The idea for Experience Corps was developed by Linda P. Fried, director of the Center on Aging and Health at the Johns Hopkins University. The program has been nurtured here by the Greater Homewood Community Corporation.

AmeriCorps, the federal volunteer network, is the Baltimore program's primary funder. Other aid comes in grants from the Abell Foundation, the France-Merrick Foundation, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and the city and state governments.

The corps formula - large-scale recruiting, intergenerational programming and a modest stipend for travel - is being held up as a model for future programs.

Seniors wishing to volunteer should call 410-807-1785.

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