Photo by Sarah Cook.
Chase Lawley, 9, reads to Bill Day, a member of Shades Mountain Independent Church who regularly volunteers at Bluff Park Elementary.
When Nancy Gray retired at 78, she decided to go back to school, but not to get a degree or diploma.
“Staying at home is great, but when you’re used to being out there and working with people every day, you kind of miss it,” she said.
Gray, a retired real estate agent, now volunteers her time with students at the Bluff Park Elementary School library.
She is one of several senior adults who routinely visit the school, mostly working with kindergarten through third-grade students. Many of the volunteers, including Gray, are members of Shades Mountain Independent Church — less than two miles down the road from the school.
Librarian Susan Hardy said the program doesn’t really have a name. It’s something that slowly developed.
“[Shades Mountain Independent] asked me if I needed some help,” Hardy recalled. When she answered yes, retired adults wanting to mentor some of the community’s youngest residents began to show up.
“The kids love it,” Hardy said, noting that the students tend to view the volunteers as grandparent figures.
Bill and Donna Day, who are also members of Shades Mountain Independent, said when they lived in Texas they participated in a similar program. When they heard about the church’s relationship with Bluff Park Elementary, Donna Day said she knew she wanted to get involved.
“Last year, we worked with a second-grader, and when the school year ended, he said ‘I’m going to miss you,’” Donna Day recalled with a smile. “So, we decided to stick with him for the third grade.”
Hardy said the volunteers seem to have a calming effect on the students — even some of the more mischievous ones.
“There is a calm and a joy [the students] have when they’re with them,” she said. “I think it’s because they’re not tied to the classroom; they’re not tied to the school, and they’re not mom and dad. It really fills a great need for us.”
And while much of the program consists of senior adults reading to the students, Hardy said some volunteers aren’t afraid to get festive and bring their own personal style of teaching to the mix.
Sheila Bancroft, a former Bluff Park elementary teacher who now volunteers with the program, is known for showing up in unusual attire. Her recent quirky costumes have included the Mad Hatter from “Alice in Wonderland” and the Easter Bunny.
“One day a week, she comes in costume and reads,” Hardy said. “It’s always a surprise to see what Sheila will be wearing.”
Bancroft is no stranger to the school. She taught first grade for 40 years.
“When she retired, she didn’t want to quit completely,” Hardy said. “So she came to the library and started reading for me.”
Hardy said the program owes much of its success simply to the Bluff Park community and its willingness to stay involved in the school system.
“Bluff Park is a community, and this program is just another example of that,” she said. “This is how the churches minister to the schools.”
Even though their time spent with the students is brief — usually no more than an hour a week — Donna Day said it’s incredible to see the bonds that are quickly formed. She said a student recently told her their time spent together was the highlight of his week.
“I think that’s the whole point right there,” Hardy said. “They don’t feel any constraints when they’re with them. They’re not being graded, and they’re not going to be disciplined. It’s one-on-one time, and I think that’s why it’s so good for the kids.”