NEW FAIRFIELD, Conn. — Each week, the second-graders in Sue Hastings’ class wait for the arrival of Kathy Hull, the town’s senior center director, hoping it will be their day to read one-on-one with their “senior buddy.”
Hull is one of 12 volunteers from the New Fairfield Senior Center that participate in the Senior Buddies Program at Consolidated School. The volunteers visit the same class of students once a week to help them with reading, writing or math skills.
Even though the program just started in February, reading specialist Roseann Petruso, who founded the program, said she has already noticed its positive effect on both volunteers and students.
“It’s a win-win for everybody,” said Petruso. “The seniors get to come in and the children make them smile … they all leave here happy. And the children, especially at this age, love the attention.”
In Hull’s case, she spent half an hour last week helping one class write Mother’s Day cards and another 30 minutes reading individually with students from Hastings’ classroom.
In brainstorming ways to help teachers at the school, Petruso came up with the idea for the program.
“I thought, ‘Why not use our seniors?'” she said. “We have a wealth of knowledge and experience right there at the senior center.”
With more parents working, the school has fewer parent volunteers than in prior years, she said. As she researched the idea, Petruso added, she learned more about the benefits of intergenerational learning.
She and Principal Rob Spino presented their findings to the center’s seniors, noting that volunteering with children helps seniors burn 20 percent more calories per week, maintain better mental and physical health, experience fewer falls and perhaps prevent Alzheimer’s.
They also found students who engage with older volunteers demonstrate better problem-solving skills and reading scores, develop a positive attitude toward aging and are less likely to use drugs or alcohol or skip school.
A 2004 study in the Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine reported that up to 13 percent more students who worked with older adult volunteers scored satisfactory reading scores compared with students without volunteers whose average scores decreased over the same period.
Hastings said she has already noticed reading improvements in her class.
“Having that time and just that feeling of accomplishment is going to make them better readers,” she said. “That one-on-one is priceless.”
The program also gives students whose grandparents live far away the chance to interact with older adults, Hastings added. Petruso said some of the seniors have told her they wanted to get involved because they aren’t able to see their own grandchildren as much as they’d like.
Each senior chooses which grade and subject they would like to help with, Petruso said. The seniors also run math centers and writing stations.
Hull said the feedback from all the volunteers has been positive.
“There’s a secret teacher in all of us,” she said. “We all want to teach something and help people learn, especially when we get older.”
Grace Scalero Manning, another senior, said she’s been amazed at the reading skills in the kindergarten class she visits. The students can’t wait for their turn to choose a book and join her at her desk in the hall, she said.
“You see a 5- or 6-year-old reading ‘hippopotamus.’ I can’t even spell that,” she said. “They’re so enthusiastic about this reading.”
Manning said she plans to continue volunteering next year.
Other seniors from the center have told Petruso they are interested in joining the program in the fall. She hopes to match some seniors to work with particular students instead of entire classes in an expansion of the program next year.
“I would definitely recommend it to other schools,” she said. “I think it’s nice to have that connection with the community. It will be nice to grow it within our school and see where we can take it.”
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