NRTA: AARP's Educator Community is committed to learning, voluntary service and civic participation. More than a decade ago, the organization formed the With Our Youth! program to provide volunteer opportunities for community service projects with youth. For the first three years of the program, NRTA made a pledge to serve 1.5 million youth in 2,000 communities with a total of 45 million service hours through its affiliated state retired educators associations (REAs). The goal was exceeded.
The recipients of NRTA's 13th Annual With Our Youth! awards were chosen for outstanding service to youth in the state, local, individual, and impact categories by an independent selection panel. Award recipients include:
Texas Retired Teachers Association
The Texas Retired Teachers Association believes in transforming a child’s life through the power of reading, one book at a time. Through the Children’s Book Project established in 1998, books are presented to the individual student as their own to take home and keep. Last year, 132,259 books were placed in the hands of elementary school children throughout the state.
Book donations are solicited from local unit members and community partners, and even gently used books are collected from the children themselves in a special student-to-student initiative. Many units have members who go into each classroom, read a brief story, and present the book as a gift to each student, but the process of selecting, purchasing and presenting the books is each local unit’s decision.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Education, children who are read to at home have a higher success rate in school and enjoy a substantial advantage over children who are not. Thanks to the dedication and outreach of retired teachers, book pages are turning each night and success rates of young children are increasing each day all across the state of Texas..
Alabama – Tuscaloosa University of Alabama Retirees Association
On April 27, 2011, a tornado over a mile wide hit, Tuscaloosa, Ala, and left a six mile path of destruction killing 52 people and destroying everything in its path. In six minutes, 12 percent of the city was destroyed, 7,000 people became unemployed and two elementary schools were ruined, along with thousands of homes, businesses and so much more. Families lost everything. Many had only the clothes they were wearing.
In the aftermath, the members of the University of Alabama Retirees contacted the City of Tuscaloosa School Administration to ask how they could help. A counselor said that she had just the project. The Children’s Place, a nationwide chain, had donated new clothing and it needed to be distributed.
A team of 20 Tuscaloosa University of Alabama Retirees Association (TUARA) members got together to work on the distribution project. The retired educators realized they needed help. The project needed a distribution center, not an easy task in the busy month of December. Holy Cross Lutheran Church became a host site and gracious partner.
They also needed help with moving the boxes of clothing, etc. One member’s grandson enlisted the help of his Delta Sigma Phi fraternity at the University of Alabama, Birmingham (40 miles from Tuscaloosa). These young men in turn were joined by their brothers in the University of Alabama chapter who were also very willing to help.
In just three days, they worked together to deliver bright The Children’s Place bags of new clothing to 229 families representing 554 children.
TUARA retired educators, The Children’s Place, Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Delta Sigma Phi fraternity brothers, the families - who received the greatest gift? Although we will never know, I suspect each facet will long remember its own special portion of the great joy experienced by all.
Pennsylvania – Blair County Chapter
Sparks have been flying in the Blair County Pennsylvania Association of School Retirees (BCC-PASR), and the best powers of retired educators’ minds were the inspiration for three projects this year.
The first local initiative was created in 2008 through the efforts of two members who wanted to provide hope and financial support for post-secondary education for children who have a strong work ethic and good attendance, but because of family circumstances often do not believe they can achieve education beyond high school. (In the Altoona Area school district, 57 percent of families qualify for free or reduced lunch.) They named the project SOAR.
During the 2009-10 school year, a pilot group of 20 junior high students was identified to participate. Parents and students signed contracts that indicated that in order to stay in the program, the students needed to maintain an 85 percent or higher GPA, a 90 percent or better attendance record, have no serious disciplinary infractions and attend a monthly after-school session with out-of-school mentors. After three years in the program, the average GPA of the group is 90 plus and the average attendance record is 97percent. Additionally, eight more students were added for the 2011-12 school year, and 10 more will be added in 2012-13. When asked, “What do you like best about SOAR?” almost all students indicated their favorite part of the program was meeting with a mentor. More than half of the mentors are retired school employees and members of BCC-PASR.
The second inspiration came during the 2011-12 school year, when members started a Backpack Project and focused on one elementary school with a very high rate of poverty. Volunteers meet on a rotating basis with other volunteer groups to fill the backpacks with enough nutritious food for the child during the weekend. Filled backpacks are then delivered by PASR volunteers to the school offices. Students in need pick up the backpacks at the office on Friday afternoons and return the empty backpack to the office each Monday morning. National data indicates that Backpack Projects provide children with nutrition, ease their anxieties, reduce absenteeism, improve attention span, raise academic performance and increase self-esteem. Knowing that at-risk children will have food for the weekend must bring great joy to the children and to the volunteers as well.
The third project was fueled in 2008 when the BCC-PASR group began donating to First Book, and they have continued to do so on a regular basis. Members have given thousands of books to children in poverty through the First Book project. As an offshoot of the donations, members have been assisting the fund-raising efforts by also donating books. One member serves on the board of directors of First Book of Blair Co. Although there is no direct contact with the children, the outcome of this effort will provide the opportunity for a lifelong love of books and reading.
Virginia – Patrick County
The Patrick County Retired Teachers Association (PCRTA) is known for its compassionate outreach to those in need. From July1, 2011, to June 30, 2012, 37 members volunteered a total of 942 hours in service to 5,511 youth. As an example, when Meadows of Dan Elementary School was heavily damaged by fire just two days into the 2011-2012 school year, Superintendent Roger Morris called on the retired teachers to come to the rescue. On Sunday, the day after the fire, he asked for help to coordinate efforts with the donated supplies coming in.
On Tuesday morning, their efforts began. Firemen were still on duty, clean-up had begun and supplies were pouring in. The retired teachers were tasked to sort the donated items, move them to a near-by church fellowship hall, and channel classroom materials to the appropriate grade level. All the textbooks had been destroyed, and the retired educators set about to provide students with everything they needed to start school again.
The 130 students at Meadows of Dan missed only one day of school. Because of the efforts of the volunteers and staff, school was running smoothly and calmly the next day at 8:30 a.m. Students were able to continue reading assignments without delay. Food and snack supplies arrived daily, and the retired teachers repackaged supplies into individual bags and distributed them to students at snack time. The retired educators’ efforts then transferred to organizing a library. Within a week, students could go into the cozy mobile library unit to read or work.
All members of the PCRTA contributed to this project. They volunteered, donated school supplies, and gave money to purchase materials, while throughout the year, they continued to donate, sort and shelve as more and more boxes arrived. Despite the enormous scale of this work, the project did not deter the association’s commitment to their established programs. They participated in the Back Pack program for needy children which involved providing food supplies to have over the weekend to 112 children who otherwise would not have a sufficient amount to eat. They worked with local churches to sponsor children to receive clothes and toys for Christmas Cheer, partnered with Ruritans on the Halloween Trunk-n-Treat, served with Rotary International to distribute a dictionary and thesaurus to all fourth and fifth graders in the county, awarded a scholarship to a senior planning on pursuing a career in education, were involved in tutoring and holding after school programs, sponsored 4-H clubs and scouts, served as lunch buddies and chaperoned field trips. They also participated in the Reality Store and Career Fair; organized church youth activities, and donated to Smart Choices Among Teens which is an alcohol-free, drug-free, after-prom event. With 37 members, 942 hours of service, to 5,511 youths and compassion that reaches throughout the county, PCRTA volunteers continue their outstanding reputation for serving children in need.
Idaho – Betty Anderson
Betty Anderson first visited Nicaragua with her church’s mission group in June 1999, and it changed her life. Following the devastation by Hurricane Mitch in October 1998, the group arrived to find profound need. In a land consumed by war, poverty and natural disasters, the rural village of San Juan de la Sierra lacked clean drinking water and few families had the money to provide basic necessities. The team worked hard and in the process developed a deep relationship with the people. They left saying that they must return again.
Anderson and her fellow mission partners did return the next year and for many years since. They had initially started out repairing roads and now worked on improving water quality and providing sewing lessons. Nicaraguan people have traditionally lived off the land and “formal” education has not been a priority. Children were fortunate to finish elementary school. Community leaders asked Anderson and her group to help improve education. “We could not refuse,” she said. “We had become acquainted with some of the boys and girls, and education would be an investment in their future.”
In 2002, the group came back again and this time formed a NGO (non-government organization) called the Nicaraguan Rural Development Agency (NIRDA). NIRDA focuses on children and education. Anderson and her team raised money to hire one high school teacher in 2004, and the following year they hired a second high school teacher and provided school supplies. NIRDA is now providing students with the opportunity to finish high school, and children are staying in school because they see that that there is hope of productive work in the future. Over 100 students have graduated in eight years, and the volunteers have attended many of the graduation ceremonies.
Anderson and the volunteers pay for their travel expenses. All funds raised go toward the project. The group’s motto is “Dedicated to Making a Difference”. They are dedicated to encouraging students to stay in school and give them hope and motivation for better lives. The volunteers care deeply about the villagers and the community appreciates the group’s ongoing special relationships with them.
Anderson’s life has also centered on promoting physical fitness and healthy food choices for young people. For 15 years, she and a fellow teacher worked with students after school for six weeks each year on a school jump rope program. They worked with the American Heart Association Jump Rope for Heart Program encouraging the students to raise funds to support research for heart disease and taught them about good nutrition and exercise. After retiring, she continued as the coach and worked with more skills, routines, contests and awards. The students learned cooperation, decision making and the value of inclusion, and their motivation and practice helped them develop lifelong skills and experience the thrill of success.
She has also worked with Girl Scouts and served as a volunteer 4-H leader for over 25 years. Her dedication to “making a difference” has made an impact on the lives of countless youth and people she has touched throughout her life.
Louisiana – Dr. Carol Christopher
Tireless in her efforts to prevent child abuse and neglect, Carol Christopher’s mantra has and will always be, “Whatever it takes, if it is legal, moral and affordable”.
Christopher has volunteered an average of 40 hours per week and helped over 3,000 teens and young adults find help, hope and a safe harbor. Her crusade to protect abused and victimized youth is not confined to the northern parishes of Louisiana. In June 1999, her four year effort culminated with the signing of House Bill 1178, Safe Harbor for Youth, into law. The law provides 72 hours of sanctuary for non-offending runaways at licensed youth facilities, and mandates that shelters notify parents of their child’s whereabouts. During this cooling off period, efforts are made to counsel families and encourage understanding and improved relationships. The family reunification success rate is 95percent!
Always working to improve local services, Christopher has forged collaborative relationships with the Office of Community Services, the District Attorney’s Adolescent Diversion Program, area school systems, and the Region VII Coalition for Homeless Advocacy and Prevention, and is a member of the National Safe Place Advisory Board. At Northeast Louisiana University, she provided countless internships and volunteer opportunities for students in the human service departments. When a youth in crisis is feeling helpless, desperate or frightened, it is imperative to reach him before he produces dangerous, destructive, or illegal behavior. For youth, immediate help is necessary. Finding that way to provide help was solved when Christopher found out about the National Safe Place, a program that had a protocol in place to train volunteers to answer the call for help at designated locations, such as fire halls, displaying the Safe Place logo. Youth learn about the program through school presentations, through the agency web site (www.teen-help.com) and Facebook.
Often youth had nowhere to go and needed shelter. In 1994, Christopher established Our House, Inc., a shelter for runaway and troubled youth. The shelter is unique in Louisiana for it encourages self-referral for these homeless, neglected, and victimized youth. Consequently, a youth may seek help at a Safe Place location or come directly to the shelter to receive food, clothing, tutoring, individual, group, and family counseling. Being an educator, Christopher always strives to provide opportunities for the youth to succeed in the classroom. Our House relies solely on grants, donations, and volunteer efforts. Consequently, Christopher provides a sizeable annual contribution and regularly purchases small extras to celebrate client achievement.
In addition to the shelter for boys and girls ages 13-17, Christopher spearheaded the Transitional Living Program for young adults ages 18-22. These young people receive housing while they complete their education. Job training, life skills classes and family counseling are made available to help them become responsible and caring adults. Parenting classes are required for all and are especially helpful for the program’s pregnant young women to learn to provide a healthy start for their babies and young children.
The words of one grateful mother could represent the sentiments of many parents when she said, “The way I look at it, Dr. Christopher and Our House saved my daughter’s life.” Christopher has devoted her life to provide the foundation for services that assist frightened, at-risk children and youth to overcome daunting situations, become brave and obtain tools for success in the future.
- Submit a nomination for the With Our Youth! Awards.
- Become an NRTA With Our Youth! volunteer. Contact the NRTA's national office at 202-434-2380 or by email.
- Read about past With Our Youth! Award winners.