BALTIMORE – The children in Jessica Wides’ first-grade class at Waverly Elementary School are a handful. A few are walking around the classroom, some bounce up and down in their chairs and others antagonize their neighbors with pokes and prods.
While Wides teaches the remaining students who are listening, Lucretia Gordon quietly makes her rounds, gently placing children back in their seats and helping the ones who have questions.
Gordon, 59, is a member of Experience Corps, a national volunteer organization that places retirees in Baltimore elementary schools to add an extra pair of hands in the classrooms. The corps members help tutor the students and act as teacher aides.
Experience Corps is a key example of retirees in action – those who decide to spend their time helping out in schools or volunteering instead of moving to Florida and playing canasta. And this is exactly what a bill moving through the General Assembly in Annapolis called the Baby Boomer Initiative Act aims to encourage.
The bill, which has had favorable action in both houses and seems on its way to passage, would set up a council that would develop recommendations for how boomers – the generation born between 1946 and 1964 and are now nearing retirement – can contribute to younger generations.
Charlotte Byrd, a legislative assistant for The Artemis Group, a governmental affairs and consulting firm which worked on the bill, said that the measure is important because the state cannot afford to lose baby boomers from the workforce in the years to come.
This could become a workforce crisis, because boomers are expected to account for about 30 percent of the state’s population in 2010, according to the Maryland Department of Planning.
“We can’t afford to lose them,” Byrd said. “We need their experience and expertise. Most of them don’t want to leave. They want to stay engaged at some level.”
She said Experience Corps is a good example of what the bill proposes to do.
“It embodies the idea of life-long learning,” she said. “Just because you are 50 or 60 years old doesn’t mean you can’t expand your horizons.”
The idea for Experience Corps showed up in the late 1980s as the brainchild of John Gardner, former secretary of what was then known as the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. But the program did not start until 1995. It places adults older than 55 in needy inner-city elementary schools.
The program started in Baltimore in 1998 and receives funding primarily from AmeriCorps, a national service program, the city, school district and private foundations. Greater Homewood Community Corporation, a non-profit organization hosts the program in Baltimore.
Now there are about 15 to 20 volunteers in 16 elementary schools in grades kindergarten to three throughout the city. To enable seniors with low incomes to volunteer, the members receive a stipend of an average of $2700 a year.
Located in Northeast Baltimore, Waverly Elementary is the heart of a working-class neighborhood. It’s surrounded by brick row houses with green awnings and single-family homes with well-kept yards and patches of flowers in bloom.
At Waverly, 18 retirees, mostly women, volunteer more than 20 hours a week, helping teachers keep the peace in classrooms. They provide an extra pair of hands to make copies, calm a rambunctious child, and tutor students – all in the classroom – so the teacher can focus on instruction.
Although not a boomer, Dick Fryer, 74, retired from civil engineering late in 2002 and joined Experience Corps because he wanted to keep active. He’s volunteered with second-graders for two years now and says that the kids definitely keep him busy both physically and mentally.
He supports the boomer bill because it would help older adults get involved with their communities.
“A lot of seniors retire, they might read and travel but it’s not enough,” he said. “The idea of getting senior citizens back into the work stream to work with children is a benefit to seniors and the children.”
While the 22-year-old teacher, Christina Pollack, instructs the classroom during a reading lesson on dinosaurs, Fryer goes around the room, gently pointing out spelling errors on the students’ writing assignments.
Seven-year-old Anthony Almond gets bored and sometimes gets distracted, but it’s because he knows this stuff, Fryer said.
Fryer encourages Anthony to read beyond his grade-level, slipping him fourth or fifth-grade books whenever he gets the chance.
“He teaches me new stuff like when I have stuff wrong he helps me correct them,” Anthony said. “In February, he gave me this book I read called Wind and Water Energy and I’m still reading it. It’s pretty hard, but really interesting, I’m at the Grand Canyon.”
Gordon has volunteered at the school for three years in the same first-grade classroom. She retired in 2004 after 30 years as a customer service representative at the Social Security Administration in downtown Baltimore. Gordon was bored with retirement and when she heard about Experience Corps, she joined the organization in March 2005.
She said she supports the bill in Annapolis because it would give retirees a choice.
“When you retire and you don’t do anything you’ll get bored,” she said. “I want to pass on how great it is to work with kids, and see the smiles on their faces.”
In her first-grade class, Gordon provides the students support because some of them don’t have skills working independently and they rely on their classmates, she said. So Gordon encourages them to do their work by themselves.
When she’s not instructing the students to work independently, Gordon provides incentives for the kids to behave.
“If they are good for a whole week, I give them a dollar or a little juice box,” Gordon said. “Some of them get it, some of them don’t. But it’s worth it, it makes me feel good.”
First-grader Kevin Grant gets dollars from Gordon when he behaves.
Although she wants the students to work by themselves as much as they can, she often helps them with their class assignments.
Seven-year-old Ashley Allen shyly admitted that she likes Gordon being in the classroom, especially when Gordon helps her with her homework.
She knows the students like they were her own grandchildren.
“Ashley is very smart but sometimes gets her feeling hurt,” Gordon said. “She gets upset easily if another kid teases her and starts crying. I have to tell her it’s okay and then I hug her.”
Ashley said she likes Gordon’s hugs.