Though he was neatly dressed with short, blond hair trimmed carefully around his face, there was something so gloomy about the 9-year-old who stood before Les Gottlieb that he was tempted to turn and walk away.
“What am I getting into here?” the 66-year-old retired pharmacist remembered asking himself as he stood at the door of the fourth-grade classroom at Ruby Drive School in Placentia.
Staring down at the slight, pale boy who cowered, with eyes downcast, Gottlieb thought: “I’m not prepared to handle something like this.”
But now, 3 years after his first experience, Gottlieb fondly recalls a task he not only handled, but stuck with.
Gottlieb is one of 17 senior citizen volunteers with Placentia Unified School District’s Project Love a Little & SEE (Seniors Enriching Education).
For rewards as simple as a funny story, a smile or a hug, he and other volunteers try to help elementary schoolchildren develop a better image of themselves.
For Gottlieb and his young friend, progress came quickly.
“In 2 or 3 weeks he came out of his shell,” Gottlieb said. After a few games of handball, which he suggested the youngster teach him to play, the boy began to open up. “I let him know he was a good teacher, and I imagined that would really build self-esteem,” he said.
Soon the boy even initiated their conversations and “when I finally got that smile,” Gottlieb said, “I thought, ‘This is a great reward.’ ”
Ann Donaldson, project coordinator, would like to see more seniors get such rewards by volunteering to work at Ruby and the three other district elementary schools that now participate in the program.
Donaldson talked about the program in a recent interview, and about the need for more supportive seniors.
“Special friends,” as volunteers are called, provide a non-judgmental relationship where children are free to be themselves, and learn to like themselves, she said.
“When you know there’s someone who cares about you, it helps you to feel stronger as a person,” Donaldson said.
Ruby Drive School started pairing seniors with students 8 years ago, to give children who were not meeting their potential some extra attention from “very special one-on-one friendships,” Donaldson said.
In 1984, a bill introduced by state Sen. David A. Roberti (D--Los Angeles) and approved by the Legislature appropriated $165,000 for administrative costs for 11 programs, like Ruby Drive’s, statewide to encourage interaction between students and seniors.
Also at that time, three more of the district’s 15 elementary schools--Topaz, Golden and Warner--were added.
The district now divides $15,000 a year in state funds between the four schools to pay for supplies and field trips, Donaldson said. Volunteers also receive a $5 stipend per visit to cover transportation costs.
But nearly 5 years after the three new schools were added in the Placentia district, officials at all four schools say the number of senior volunteers is decreasing--down to 17 from more than 20 last year for the four programs.
Donaldson said she is hoping for increases mainly at Topaz, Warner and Golden--which have a total of seven volunteers--but would like to have more volunteers at Ruby as well.
Currently, there are 2,100 senior volunteers working with 79,223 preschool through 12th-graders in at least 65 school districts throughout the state, said Carol Monroe, a consultant in parenting and community education with the state Department of Education.
Monroe said the Education Department started a recruitment drive last December to increase the number of senior volunteers. “We would like to have (similar programs) in every school in the state,” she said.
“We are not looking for people with any specific training,” she said. “We’re interested in people who want to share themselves with children, even if it’s just a hug.”
Monroe said the volunteers in the programs are not only role models, but expose children to information about different crafts, hobbies and occupations.
While the Placentia program began as a way of exposing children to seniors and helping to build the children’s self-confidence, teachers also now recommend students who they believe would do better academically with some special attention.
In some cases there are problems at home that interfere with concentration, Donaldson said. “We’re talking kids who have things happening at home that are a little distressing,” she said. “We hope that with a little attention they are going to produce more.”
One sixth-grade girl who has been in the program for several months because of family problems said she enjoys the meetings. Talking with her friend has helped her do better in school, she said. “I can get my mind off my problems.”
Two boys, one in third grade, the other in fourth, said they enjoy playing the board game Monopoly with their special friend, Lyle Lawrence, 82. “Except he doesn’t let us win,” the fourth grader said.
“And I don’t cheat either,” chuckled Lawrence, who proudly admits that he plays to win and shows no mercy to his younger, less-experienced opponents.
Janis Burndahl, a fourth-grade teacher at the Ruby Drive School, has recommended several students for the program: some who disrupted class because they wanted attention, some who have had trouble concentrating or finishing schoolwork, and others who just seemed sad or lonely.
Though no official statistics are kept, she says she has noticed better attitudes and better grades among the participants.
“I think it is an excellent program,” Burndahl said. “So many of these kids come with either a negative role model or no role model at all.”
Many of the children she recommends have problems at home that affect their schoolwork, she said. And while she doesn’t see the friendships as a long-term solution to the problems, just getting some encouragement and having someone to talk to helps, she said.
While officials seemed to emphasize benefits for the children, volunteers said they, too, grow from the experience.
“I get uplifted by the children and I learn a lot,” said Vivian Sangston, another program volunteer. “There are different ways of doing things since I was a kid, so I learn too,” said the 74-year-old who has “adopted” a third-grade class at Ruby Drive.
For example, she said she has learned some Spanish from two youngsters she is helping to learn English.
“I don’t know Spanish, so we kind of learn together,” she said, noting that her efforts to speak Spanish are not very good either. “So we laugh at each other.”
Volunteers concentrate on friendship and activities with the children rather than counseling, Donaldson said.
“When we come, we give them love,” said 78-year-old Joseph Peterson, a volunteer of 5 months. Peterson said he “didn’t get too much attention when I was a child,” so he often can understand what the two boys he has befriended are going through.
In addition to tutoring one of his boys in math, Gottlieb said he modifies games so they’re not competitive. He said he usually just tries to keep the games going rather than see who makes the first mistake. “This builds their self-esteem in a constructive way rather than at the expense of another person,” he said.
Parents said they were happy with the results of the program for their children.
“My daughter was a very hyper child and it taught her how to act in the classroom,” one mother said of her 10-year-old daughter who was enrolled in the program as a preschooler. “I really think it helped her, it showed her how to behave in school.”
Many of the seniors say they do several types of volunteer work to keep busy. But they enjoy being with the children most of all.