I love this story because it’s all about how much old people have to offer (Yay, seniors!) and because I heard about it from a young friend of mine who was bragging about her mother (I can only dream…) I also love it because my dad used to volunteer teaching chemistry to young kids when he was in his 80s, and he saved their cute thank-you notes forever.
It all started with sort of a selfish aim. Beryl Katz had a young son with intense ADHD, and he needed special attention in school. Yet the programs that kids like Mike needed were expensive, and seniors in the Council Rock, Pennsylvania district often showed up to oppose funding them. Beryl understood the seniors’ position, because her parents were living on fixed incomes, but she’d also been a teacher, so she knew the other side as well.
So in 1999, she had a stroke of genius: if she could get seniors into the schools so they could understand the demands on the education system – and allow seniors to feel how important their help was– then maybe everyone could come together and support the schools.
Beryl Katz went to the president of the school board, who loved her idea and thanked her for volunteering to run it. (gulp!) Undismayed, she pitched right in.
Necessity may be the mother of invention but mothers are the people who invented doing something for nothing. To attract her first volunteers, Beryl invited all the seniors in the area to a free Thanksgiving lunch at the school cafeteria, followed by a free school play. Beryl got her first 75 volunteers to sign up to help in the classroom and she was off and running.
Ten years later, SAGE (Senior Adults for Greater Education) www.beasage.org operates in 35 schools with 175 volunteers. Along the way, Beryl has established great working relationships with teachers and principals, and drawn in local politicians, corporate bigwigs, and legal eagles that love getting involved in this innovative win-win program.
Beryl still lets the seniors choose what they want to teach, then finds teachers who can use that in the classroom — from veterans talking about serving in WWII, to women whipping up costumes for school plays, to artists teaching sculpture. And both kids and seniors still benefit tremendously from the interchange: seniors are energized, engaged and valued for their knowledge; while recent studies show that kids with an older person in their life have a “protective factor” and are less likely to use drugs, commit violence, or drop out of school. Some of Beryl’s original volunteers are still in the classroom, and the Intergenerational Spelling Bee and Bingo Nights continue to be a huge hit.