Area 1 Agency on Aging

Grumpy Gus has thrown down the gauntlet.

”Americans like to talk about wanting to outdo all these other countries in edu¬cation and how important education is, but I don’t see a whole lot of them backing it up and volunteering,” the 54-year-old Arcata landscaper said. “I put my money where my mouth is.”

John Davis is neither grumpy nor Gus, but that’s the nickname given him by the Pacific Union students he tutors. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Davis spends 20 minutes apiece with three kindergarteners to improve their reading skills. Then he moves along to the second grade to help three more students with math.

”The nickname doesn’t really fit until I do the face that makes kindergarteners laugh,” he said. “I tell them there’s no smiling in school, but can’t get them to do the grumpy face. All they can do is smile and laugh.” Davis is among the 96 volunteers placed with 280 kindergarten through second-grade students as part of the Early Literacy Partners Program coordinated by the Humboldt County Office of Education and United Way.

Now in its first year of targeted recruitment and volunteer expansion, the program has volunteers in 21 schools, but 26 classrooms are still waiting for their first volunteer.

The expansion came as part of the Decade of Difference Initiative, a joint effort of the community and Headwaters Fund board.


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”Local employers expressed concern about the ongoing difficulty of finding a ready, willing and able workforce,” said HCOE community outreach coordinator Jenny Bowen. “That resulted in a call to action. There’s a shared belief that the problem could not be solved by education alone.” The broader goals of the initiative are to better prepare youth to be contributing and productive members of society in general and the economy in particular.

Early literacy in reading and math is one of the initiative’s main strategies and key themes, in large part because research strongly shows it to be a powerful indicator of future success.

”Currently, less than half of the children in the county in kindergarten through third grade are reading at proficient levels,” Bowen said. “If a child is not reading proficiently by the time they finish third grade, their chances of dropping out of high school increase by 75 percent.”

Davis was a high school dropout. He was not unable, as proven by good grades in college courses he later took. But in his childhood “it was not a requirement to get an education,” he said.

”No encouragement; almost a discouragement,” he said. “There’s a lot of kids like me who may be in a family where there is not as much attention being spent on education for whatever reason. If they can get a little help from someone else, we are all the better for it.”

The students tutored are “good kids that could use a little extra support,” Bowen said.

Volunteers are matched with so-called “reluctant or struggling readers” - those who may not have had early exposure to books or reading or who lack the confidence to participate or attention skills to focus in increasingly crowded classrooms.

”The whole idea is to get them comfortable with words, letters and sounds when they are young,” said Kathleen Carter, a retiree from the gardening industry whose six grandchildren range in age from 10 to 22. She volunteers at Dow’s Prairie School.

”When they turn into teenagers, grandma is not so interesting,” she said. “I miss the young ones. I love retirement - I really do - but after awhile, getting up and not having to go to work is pretty self-indulgent.”

Eureka’s Carol Flackus retired after 40 years in the classroom. When the youngest of her four grandchildren started school in Fortuna, Flackus was “getting a little bored.” She volunteers at Ambrosini, and then heads over to Redwood Preparatory to help in her grandchild’s class.

”A lot of time, we retire and don’t want to give up the flexibility and free time,” she said. “But with this program you can let them know when you are out of town. As you get into it more, you see the need to be there more often. The teachers are so grateful. The children are so glad to see you. They love to have that one-on-one.”

Ideally, tutors volunteer two hours weekly. They meet individually with three students for 20 minutes twice a week.

”Their attention spans are short. After 20 minutes, they are burned out,” Carter said.

”We are already reading little books and learning sight words and word families (such as hat, bat and fat),” said Carol Woods, a retired teacher volunteering at Arcata Elementary School since fall 2011. “The main impact is reinforcing what the teacher is doing in the classroom.”

Bowen said a three-hour volunteer training session is required and packed with useful information to help retired professionals as well as those without formal training in child education or development.

”They give us tools to use, pages of suggested activities, letters we can cut and use for making words, and supplies. It is a good outline,” Woods said.

”They tell us how to establish a relationship with the kids, so we did a book about each of them that we fill out with the child. Who is in your family? Do you have pets? That sort of thing,” Carter said. “They aren’t reading per se. I read to them. But they feed back the information to me and we work on letters and comprehension.”

”The kids are incredible and I know I’m making progress,” said Davis, who is one of only 20 math tutors. His first math students started out way behind their classmates, but ended at the top of their class and are still doing well in the subject, he said.

”All three had an incredible lack of confidence in themselves,” he said. “Some kids get lost in the classroom setting. But once they got some confidence and we made it fun, they did really well. I am not a math genius, but it’s not like you need major math skills for second grade.”

Davis’ interest in education grew with his interest in the woman who became his wife. She is now a seventh-grade math teacher at McKinleyville Middle School.

”Teachers are overworked and underappreciated in our society. They could use all the help they can get,” he said.

To volunteer in the Early Literacy Partners Program, contact Bowen at 441-4552 or JBowen@humboldt.k12.ca.us. The next training is Jan. 29 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Humboldt County Office of Education, 910 Myrtle Ave. in Eureka.

A tuberculosis test is done during the training and a background check with fingerprinting is required to help in schools. Bowen said the cost for both is covered by the program.

Volunteers age 55 and older are eligible for mileage reimbursement of 22 cents per mile up to $25 per month, if they join the retired and senior volunteer program, part of the Area 1 Agency on Aging. Last year, RSVP volunteers supported 65,000 organizations across America and served more than 60 million hours. To volunteer in Humboldt County, call 442-3711, fax 442-3714 or e-mail vcor@a1aa.org.

Area 1 Agency on Aging commissioned freelance writer Carol Harrison to write this story.