When Meredithe Riley retired after 40 years working for a catalog company, she quickly became bored.
"You can only do so much cooking, and you can only read so many books. I needed to interact with people," said Riley, of Philadelphia. She spotted an article about Experience Corps in the AARP Bulletin. Then, she heard a neighbor had joined.
Experience Corps brings older adults into public elementary schools to help improve the reading skills of students from kindergarten to third grade. "Working with the children is one of the best experiences I've ever had," said Riley, 73, who has tutored homeless students, middle-class students and a few whose behavior landed them in alternative schools in the past. "Even the meanest children will thank you for helping them."
According to an independent survey, 96 percent of volunteers report they feel better about themselves and 86 percent report that their lives have improved since joining Experience Corps.
"It's given me a purpose, because you get up in the morning and you know that you're needed someplace," said Clara Pittman, a retired Verizon customer-service representative and AARP member who has tutored at Shawmont Elementary in the city's Roxborough section for almost six years.
Pittman, 70, said she enjoys her teaching team. "We all have lunch together and you make friends. It's so much better than just sitting around and watching television all day. It keeps you alert."
Amy Zandarski-Pica, Experience Corps national director of programs, said, "We see it as a triple win" for the volunteers, the children and the communities that are served.
Volunteers receive 15 hours of training before they hit the classrooms and additional training each month. Some tutor twice a week for a minimum of five hours, others more. Those who work 10 or more hours a week receive a small stipend.
Tutors sit side-by-side with students — individually or in small groups — sounding out words and offering encouragement. Early intervention is crucial: 83 percent of low-income fourth-graders nationally failed reading proficiency tests last year, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
In a single school year, children working with Experience Corps members nationwide made 60 percent more progress in comprehension than students with comparable abilities who did not receive help, according to an independent study. The gains were across the board — regardless of gender, ethnicity, classroom behavior, even English-language proficiency.
In Philadelphia, where the program is entering its 15th year, the results are even better. About seven of 10 Philadelphia children jump at least one grade level in reading after working with the tutors for one year, said Robert Tietze, executive director for Experience Corps Philadelphia.
Henry Barsky, principal of Olney Elementary, the city's first Experience Corps site, said children and teachers hold the tutors in high regard. "People are always talking to them and waving to them," he said. "Even if they're not in that room anymore, children come back to see the Experience Corps person."
Tietze said AARP members have been a wonderful talent pool for the Philadelphia program. "They help children, not just in reading, but by providing a friend, a confidant, a mentor. They provide unconditional love and support to these kids, and that's extremely important … [They] can be a real catalyst for helping the next generation."
Aliya Catanch-Bradley still remembers tears welling up in her daughter Jordan's eyes when she said goodbye to her Experience Corps tutor at A.B. Day Elementary in Mount Airy the summer after second grade.
Now 10, Jordan Bradley is reading at grade level.
"The Experience Corps volunteer gave my daughter the extra push that she needed to make her the reader that she is today. If it weren't for that love and care and knowledge base, Jordan might still be a struggling reader, but she's not," Catanch-Bradley said. "I just really appreciate all that they did for my baby."
Experience Corps, currently serving 2,500 Philadelphia children, is seeking new members.
To qualify, tutors must be at least 55 and have a high school diploma or GED as well as a willingness to work as a team. The average age for volunteer tutors is 67.
For more information, visit the Intergenerational Center at Temple University, which is the host agency for the program.
To join the 250 volunteers in Philadelphia schools, call 215-204-5302.
Kathryn Canavan is a freelance writer living in Wilmington, Del.