Adults 50 and older volunteer with AARP Experience Corps to mentor school children in need

by: JIM CLARK/PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP - AARP Experience Corps volunteer Donna Jackson tutors children at Hall Elementary School in Gresham.Five children buzz around Donna Jackson as they pore over math problems. One boy watches as Jackson checks his answers. A girl leans across the table to ask her a question.

This is why Jackson, a 74-year-old Fairview resident, comes back year after year to Hall Elementary School in Gresham, where she volunteers as a mentor with AARP Experience Corps.

“I'm helping them and myself. I look forward to it, and I love kids. I helps me feel like I'm doing something, being a part of something,” says Jackson, who is in her third year as an Experience Corps volunteer.

The 17-year-old national service program — which merged with AARP last year and operates in 10 schools in the Portland area — matches volunteers age 50 and older with children who need extra academic and social support.

Jackson retired after working 30 years in respiratory care for Legacy Health System, and she also has volunteered as a Sunday School superintendent at her church. She heard about Experience Corps from a cousin who is a volunteer with the program in Portland, then found out that Hall was looking for mentors.

“It's kind of nice to come here and see kids, to see life, and help them grow,”she says.

As work with children can be, mentoring has its frustrations along with rich rewards, Jackson has found. “There are moments when you think, 'Are you listening?' or 'Am I helping you?' Then down the road they come to me and say, 'Mrs. Jackson, thank you for helping me,'” Jackson says.

As someone who has 21 grandchildren, she understands when some of the Hall students call her Grandma, “but I try to squash that — I'm Mrs. Jackson,” she says, smiling.

“They know how much I love them. You have really got to like kids, or you can't be a mentor.”

Mentors are a mainstay

Jackson and other Experience Corps volunteers — among them Doris Mehl and Peggy Armstrong, also in their third year as volunteers at Hall Elementary — contribute five to 15 hours per week working on reading, writing and math with students in kindergarten through third grade who need extra support.

Mehl, 79, of Sandy joined the program after reading a newspaper article about it. She does other volunteer work, including with Mt. Hood Hospice and in the office at her church, but the grandmother of five hadn't volunteered in a school before.

Mehl volunteers at Hall five mornings a week, three hours each day. She started out working with third-graders and this year is tutoring first-graders, focusing on reading and handwriting.

“It's fun to be around kids; they're interesting people,” Mehl says. “As long as my car runs and my health stays, I'm going to keep doing this.”

Armstrong, a Gresham resident who turns 65 in November, works three 5-1/2-hour days a week with Hall first-graders. She also volunteers one day a week as a general helper at a Milwaukie elementary school where one of her three granddaughters is a student.

Armstrong worked as a buyer for Fabricland and then for a heating/ventilation supply company. After retiring four years ago, she looked for ways to volunteer and found Experience Corps.

“There's a language barrier for many of these children and a need for a consistent adult in their lives,” she says. “I feel like us being here is a mainstay; they know we're here.”

The student-mentor bond

Hall Elementary is typical of the schools that Experience Corps serves. With an enrollment of about 500, Hall has the highest student mobility of any school in the Gresham-Barlow School District, says Principal Carlynn Capps says. Last year saw a 26-percent turnover among Hall's students — the percentage of children who moved in and out of the school. Also last year, 74 percent of Hall students received free or reduced-price lunches, the principal says.

Capps says the biggest impact of AARP Experience Corps is the bond that is forged between mentors and students. “It's the connect with the stable adult. They're forming a relationship and building the capacity for being successful students,” she says.

Another of the program's appeals, she says, is the high amount of support the program gives its mentors, not just the initial training but the continuing support the mentors receive.

Mehl is one volunteer who appreciates the attention. “They train you very sensibly,” she says. “Going in cold, you don't know the school culture.”

And mentors return year after year. Jessica McLaren, AARP Experience Corps program coordinator, says there is an 88 percent return rate on volunteers, and the average time of volunteer service is six or seven years.

Mehl says she knows she's made a difference when a child solves a math problem or grasps the meaning of a string of words. “Every once in a while you make this 'aha' moment — they got it,” she says.

Jackson has filled two notebooks with pictures and notes that the children have given her, including a big heart drawing with the words “Welcome back” that one student made for her at the beginning of the school year.

“I go home at night, and I can sleep good because I know I've done something. This is the most positive thing I can do.”

About AARP Experience Corps

Founded in 1995, Experience Corps is a national service program that enlists older adults to help children succeed in school. An estimated 2,000 Experience Corps volunteers in 23 cities across the United States serve as mentors to school children. In October 2011, Experience Corps merged with AARP, a partnership that allows the two organizations to tap into each other's resources.

In Portland, AARP Experience Corps is a program of the nonprofit Metropolitan Family Service. This year about 55 mentors age 50 and older are volunteering at 10 elementary schools in seven school districts in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties that have identified disadvantaged children needing extra help. Those schools are: James John, Lent and Woodlawn (Portland Public Schools); Prescott and Sacramento (Parkrose district); Barnes (Beaverton); Hall (Gresham-Barlow district); Gilbert Heights (David Douglas district); Davis (Reynolds district); and Lot Whitcomb (North Clackamas).

Mentors contribute five to 15 hours per week at school working with students in kindergarten through third grade, either individually or in small groups. Some stipend positions are available for those volunteering 15 hours per week throughout the school year.

No experience is needed; all volunteers receive training and ongoing support. For more information, call Deborah at 503-232-0007 ext. 222 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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