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Public Schools Rely on Senior Helpers

A group of senior citizens lighten the workload for teachers at McNair Elementary School.

Seven years ago, Rhoda Eisenberg-Mendlow, an active PTA parent at Deer Park Elementary School in Centreville, saw a need.

"Schools need as many hands as possible," said Eisenberg-Mendlow, a mother of three Fairfax County Public School students. "The teachers are overworked. Dads are off at work. Moms are busy. I thought that seniors would work just fine."

So Eisenberg-Mendlow went to the nearby Forest Glen retirement home to recruit volunteers to help out at Deer Park. Five "pioneers" showed up at her first informational meeting. She has been organizing senior citizens to work in local elementary schools ever since. "We started with just a little word of mouth," she said. "Well, I guess the word got out."

Carolyn Sifers was the first one in line when Eisenberg-Mendlow brought her program to McNair, Herndon's newest elementary school. "Most of my family members were teachers," said Sifers, in her distinctive Southern drawl. "Education is important to me and all of this stuff we do is great if it helps the teachers and the students."

<b>WITH THE HELP</b> of Cluster VII director Betsy Goodman, what started out as a simple idea has blossomed into a program at four Fairfax County schools, including McNair Elementary School in Herndon.

Sue Benezra, the McNair principal, knew she wanted the program as part of her new school when it prepared to open for business nearly two years ago. When McNair was forming, Benezra shared an office with Goodman, a proponent of the program. With Kendrick Court apartments, a senior rental community, less than half a mile from the school, there was a natural relationship, Benezra said.

"The seniors are an untapped resource. They are free labor and they are willing to do everything," Eisenberg-Mendlow said.

"It's been marvelous, just marvelous," Benezra said. "Our senior volunteers have been able to make a lot of teacher materials which, in turn, has really freed up our instructional assistants to do other things which has been a real bonus."

<b>ONCE A WEEK</b>, on Tuesdays, Eisenberg-Mendlow leads a troupe of 14 senior citizens, many of whom have grandchildren at McNair, into the Herndon school. "They do a little bit of everything from making instructional materials to putting books away in the library to tutoring students in basic math to Xeroxing and laminating," Eisenberg-Mendlow said. "And they do it willingly and with a smile."

But it is not just the teachers who are benefiting from the senior volunteer corps, Eisenberg-Mendlow said. "The seniors love it," she said. "They feel like they are the lucky ones."

Stella Lerza agreed. "The teachers are so appreciative of everything we do," Lerza said. "It's just great to be keeping busy."

Lerza's husband suffers from the effects of Alzheimer's disease and she said she looks forward to her weekly "escape" to McNair. "It's a very good release," she said.

One teacher told volunteer Mary Caputo that the program has an added benefit. "One teacher came up to me and said that her husband loves us," she said, "because if we weren't there this is work they would be doing at home."

Benezra said she really enjoys the interaction between the students and the seniors. "It's good generationally. It's a very grandparent-grandchild kind of relationship," the principal said. "We live in a very transient area and a lot of our kids don't live near their grandparents. So this interaction with our seniors is very beneficial."

Ages of the 55 participants range from 67 to 92. Most of the volunteers are grandparents and they all have a wide range of life experiences, including Leon Gamble, a retired CIA agent whose children helped integrate Churchill Elementary School in McLean in 1960. "When I moved here last year, I went up to the school to volunteer," Gamble said, while cutting out laminated paper clocks in a cramped room. "That's when I found out about this program. As long as I am helping teachers, I feel good. Plus, sometimes they bring us cookies and juice."

Without the program, many of these volunteers would be "sitting home and vegetating," Eisenberg-Mendlow said. "Once they are in, they are sucked in and they don't want to go home. It's therapeutic.

"This program really keeps them alive," she said. "They only time they ever leave it is when they go into an assisted living center or when they pass, and that is the sad part of my job."

The program has proved so popular that other school's have requested Eisenberg-Mendlow's help. "People are always asking me if I can start this in their school," she said.