Seniors Donate Handiwork and Time to Aid Kids in Classroom


Snip. Baste. Stuff. Sew. Decorate. A little gossip, a little cake and coffee--some more snipping. Add the finishing touches.

This is how a couple dozen women in their 70s and 80s spent Monday afternoon at the Goebel Senior Adult Center--creating cuddly stuffed bunnies and bears for schoolchildren in the Conejo Valley.

Their professional-looking handiwork will soon be shipped to the group’s two adopted campuses--Park Oaks and Conejo elementary schools in Thousand Oaks--where students who complete their lessons will be rewarded with these handmade “study buddies.”


Last year, volunteers from the center’s Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, known as RSVP, set a goal to sew 1,500 teddy bears for various schools and nonprofit groups in time for Christmas.

But sewing that quantity of stuffed animals got a bit hectic and the group was unable to complete its task. That’s why for two hours every Monday, the seniors still meet to finish sewing 317 remaining bunnies to send to Conejo School, their newly adopted elementary, whose mascot is the English translation of conejo: a rabbit.

“We give them to hospitals, schools and abused children,” said Connie Kraszewski of Newbury Park, a 75-year-old volunteer who prefers to cut out the patterns rather than sew or stuff them.

“Last week, we got a thank-you note from each child at one of the schools. When you read it, you just know that someone is just ‘Mmmmmm!’ ” she said while picking up one of the soft bunnies and hugging it. “It sends chills down your spine. These kids are getting something made with tender loving care.”

Aside from the warm fuzzy feeling created by the seniors’ donated toys, the main thrust of the 2-year-old RSVP adopt-a-school effort is to help students learn. Principals request volunteers to assist with reading and math lessons, as needed. The Goebel seniors hope to add a third campus to their list some time this year.

Of the center’s 1,100 volunteers, about 80 seniors specifically devote their time to tutoring children and helping busy teachers during the day.


Before students receive a stuffed study buddy, for instance, they must complete a reading assignment or another school project assigned by their teacher.

Lorraine Shalat, a 74-year-old retired teacher, helps the afternoon kindergarten class at Conejo Elementary most Thursdays. The Westlake Village volunteer sits with students during arts and crafts time, and she also guides them through library skills and watches them on the playground.

“I enjoy the children and learn sometimes as much as they do,” she said. “I know I’ve been accepted by them, too, because they saw me at lunchtime eating a banana and now they call me, ‘Monkey.’ ”

The adopt-a-school relationship has been wonderful for both the seniors and the children, said Louise Danielle, who has been the RSVP director for 20 years.

“A lot of children don’t have grandparents in the area and now they can have a Grandma and Grandpa sometimes,” she said.

As for the seniors, Danielle said some admit they are apprehensive about working with children or stepping back onto school grounds after being out of the academic picture for so many years.


But after spending quality time on campus, the barriers break and seniors come back “just loving the children,” Danielle said.

“They’re adorable,” agreed 66-year-old Thousand Oaks volunteer Bob Caccavo. “They are so good.”

The retired financial planning specialist, who tutors Park Oaks third-graders in math, said the volunteering is worth it when one of his previous students greets him in the hall with a big smile. It makes him feel like a second grandfather, he said.

The students say they benefit from the relationship, too.

Conejo Elementary fourth-grader Brittney Reese said her class’ volunteer is “really nice to the kids” and he “helps us think of ideas and stuff” while she and her peers write in their journals.

Although she couldn’t remember her classroom volunteer’s name, Brittney did recall that Mike Markese was an impressive 92 years old.

Brittney’s mother, Gail, said her daughter loves having Markese visit the school and will come home telling stories about him, including one tale about how he doesn’t realize that he is whistling loudly to himself, because he is hard of hearing.


“I think it’s great,” Reese said. “The kids love them and it’s wonderful to have them see seniors involved in the community. They see that old people don’t just sit around.”


The 25-year-old Retired and Senior Volunteer Program is always looking for more help in the way of time and donated materials, including fabric and stuffing. Anyone interested should call RSVP director Louise Danielle at 381-2742. The Goebel Senior Adult Center is at 1385 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks.