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NRTA's 14th Annual With Our Youth Awards

Recognizing the exceptional community service of retired educators nationwide

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 14th 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:

Excellence Awards: State Category

Indiana Retired Teachers Association

“CASA, IRTA AND YOU! Working Today for Our Children’s Tomorrow” is more than a catchy title on a brochure: it’s the Indiana Retired Teachers Association’s (IRTA) mission that is being acted upon throughout the state.

The IRTA has partnered with Indiana Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) to recruit volunteers for the CASA program. The IRTA-CASA team is a first-of-its-kind partnership that is serving as a national model for emulation in other states. The parents and the court system have representatives who speak for them, but often the child has no one to be an advocate. For every child in foster or group homes, one of three is given extra individual help through the CASA program. This was a compelling reason for IRTA to involve retired teachers in the CASA program as a state group project.  

In 2008, IRTA partnered with the Indiana Department of Justice and the existing state CASA program in this endeavor. It was a perfect match for teachers to continue working with youth. Children who become wards of the court are in the program because they have been abandoned, abused or neglected, and they have a great need for someone special whose sole interest is to help the child have a safe home.

One Indiana retired educator CASA wrote that during her 33 years of active teaching, she saw children come to school hungry, bruised, unwashed, in the same clothing day after day, carrying stories of violence and dragging their issues with them. They were supposed to be ready to concentrate on learning. She said, “I knew there had to be something more I could do. When I learned about CASA, I found that something more. The skill set that we as educators possess are those needed to be an effective advocate — compassion, organization and the ability to communicate. It has been said the future walks before us on the feet of a child. As an educator and a CASA, we know we definitely will impact the lives of children and thus the future.”

The CASA, among many other things, visits the school, tracks grades and behavior, oversees dental and medical services, sees that Medicare services are in place, and recommends counseling when needed.

One of the special responsibilities of an advocate is to be the voice of the child when the parents appear in court. To do this, most cases require that the advocate spend six to 10 hours a month with visitation to the foster family or home where the child resides, and they often attend family meetings where parents meet with case workers and service providers. The CASAs spend their own money without compensation, and the length of service of each case is determined by the time needed to resolve the child’s problems. There are about 70 Indiana counties involved in the CASA program. Many Indiana retired teachers have accepted the challenge to become a CASA. They believe that every child deserves to be in a permanent, loving and stable environment, and are well recognized in the Indiana Supreme Court system for their child advocacy work to help make that happen. IRTA CASAs are making a huge contribution to enriching the lives of the many children they serve across the state of Indiana.

Next page: Local and Individual Category Winners. »

Local Category

Mississippi – Neshoba County Retired Education Personnel of Mississippi

In Neshoba County, Miss., an area of 590 square miles and a 2010 census population of 29,676, the footprints of the Neshoba County Retired Education Personnel of Mississippi (NCREPM) Association members can be found wherever you go! These retired educators have made a significant impact on their communities through a variety of intergenerational activities.  

If you traveled through the county this year, you could have found members working at the Fall Fun Day giving special needs students the opportunity to have fun and improve their social skills. Others were collecting school supplies and book bags for needy children, judging for the school reading fair competition, and involved in after-school tutoring. Some were donating supplies to the new Baptist Children’s Village and volunteering with Veterans’ Day celebrations and projects to raise money for veterans’ needs.  

While some were assisting with the Women’s Job Corps to help prepare for jobs and job interviews, others were providing regular visits to nursing home residents. They were also mentoring students and donating appropriate clothing. Each year they support recognition for the Outstanding Vocational-Technical Student for the County’s Vo-Tech Center. The chapter also donates one dollar per member for the state scholarship fund.  

Vincent Van Gogh once said, “What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?” In turn, “What would life in Neshoba County be like if members of NCREPM lacked the courage to reach out and attempt a little bit of just about everything?” With the many meaningful volunteer services provided by the retired educators, thankfully we will never know!

Ohio – Geauga County Retired Teachers Association

In Geauga County, Ohio, a rural community with a population of 93,389, four retired teachers have volunteered together some 50+ hours a month since 2008. They have opened up the wonder of the world of books by volunteering with a reading outreach for both parents and young children of all ages. Volunteers start with the Babies First Books program and give books to new parents at Geauga Hospital for their newborn infants along with materials on reading tips and the importance of reading.

The volunteers participate in the Books and Bears Program, where they are part of a large group of retired teachers who read to all kindergarteners in the county. The retired educators tell the class that when they visit the library, they will receive their very own bear book, stuffed bear and library card as well as a tour of the library.

The four retired educators evaluated and color-coded hundreds of books according to difficulty.

And in rain or shine, they deliver library books from the bookmobile to two Amish schools. This is of special value as Amish schools do not have libraries in their buildings.

John Quincy Adams told us that, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” The four volunteers have been instrumental in inspiring Geauga County’s young children and their parents to dream more, learn more, do more, become more and read more! They are opening up the world beyond through introducing the magic of books and reading.

Next page: Local and Individual Category Winners. »

Pennsylvania – Lehigh Chapter/PASR

To emphatically express the impact the Lehigh Chapter of Retired Educator’s 26,000 hours of volunteer service had on the county, past president Joan Failla presented a mock check for $3,722,619 to the Lehigh County Commissioners! The check representing the amount of money the retired educators’ volunteer service saved their local communities through the time they gave to charitable, educational and religious organizations. Failla stated that retired public school employees are some of the most active, involved people in the hometown communities. Throughout their years of active service, they dedicated themselves to helping others, and now the Pennsylvania Association of School Retirees (PASR) mission continues to be to encourage volunteer service to others in need. Members continue an active involvement extending their professionalism, dedication to children and commitment to education.

Lehigh Chapter PASR offers annual educational grants to teachers for use in planning field trips, buying uniforms, introducing needy children to nature and other valuable instructional and or nurturing opportunities. They also serve as guest readers, classroom aides, library volunteers and Sunday school teachers.

They are partners with the Blue Scarf Project, a program that helps children understand and alert adults about child abuse. Members knit scarves that are donated to the Child Advocacy Center in Allentown with a tag attached that lists a telephone number telling children how to contact a member of the advocacy center to report child abuse or any danger to themselves or others.

They participate in Reach Out and Read, where books are donated to volunteers who read at the Lehigh Valley Health Network to patients and their siblings. Every child receives a book after a visit to the hospital. The association has donated hundreds of books to the hospital, and 125 books were donated in 2012 in honor of PASR’s 75th birthday celebration. Cleveland Elementary also received 125 books, and to protect the many children there with insufficient clothing for cold weather, the chapter also collected socks, gloves, scarves and hats. Volunteers worked with Second Harvest, where backpacks are prepared for needy children providing food for the week and weekends. Pallets of quality food are delivered to children’s organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs and YMCA/YWCA for children in need.  Volunteers gave 26,000 hours of service and caring.  

Individual Category

California – Vernon Von Sydow

Vern Von Sydow has touched the lives of literally thousands of at-risk high school students. His math tutoring has helped turn dropouts into college students, and teachers credit working one on one with him as one of the key interventions to move students ahead. Years ago, he reached out to his Naval Academy class alumni network and asked for donations to start the Palomar Scholarship Foundation, which awards more than 20 scholarships per year to deserving young people. That seed money along with fundraising and donations has supported young people going to college for over 20 years.  

He is a role model to all teachers for his selflessness in retiring to save the jobs of younger teachers and in his work ethic. Despite being retired, he still comes to school every day to tutor at-risk kids in math. In particular he works with teen mothers to help them achieve their graduation goals. He comes in early and stays late yet always has time to devote to a student who needs him whether it be to teach them how to tie a tie for a job interview or just to listen to them when they are feeling down. He never fails to remind that mistakes are just another step in the direction of perfection.

The scholarship fund is a fully functioning 501(c)(3) charity registered with the state of California, and he serves as the foundation’s president. He is also on the Sweetwater Union School District’s Superintendent’s Advisory Committee helping to shape new education policy. During his teaching years, he established an internship program where at-risk teens work in jobs on the local naval base learning career skills and building relationships with naval mentors. The Navy Internship Training Program has served thousands of young men and women and has been recognized with a Golden Bell award from the governor of California.

Next page: More Individual Category Winners. »

Indiana – Jerry D. Bell

“I cannot let this campground be sold ” were the words of Jerry D. Bell, a retired music teacher, regarding the 12+ acre wooded Nameless Creek Youth Camp in Greenfield, Ind. The well-used and loved camp was founded in 1951, but by 2006 it had fallen into total disrepair. He and a small group of volunteers met weekly to plan ways to achieve their goal to restore the campground. He created a business plan and a governing board, and he reached out to community organizations and businesses for financial assistance and needed materials. Facebook was used and websites were created for sharing information and increasing awareness and visibility.  

The community stepped up to help, and local merchants donated materials, equipment and workers. Groups of scouts painted, spread gravel and built a playground. Eagle Scouts completed seven projects, including the construction of Nameless Creek Pond, which is handicap accessible and will be stocked this summer.

Many other youth and adult groups helped as well, including AmeriCorps, Eli Lily and Co., Elanco Inc., church groups, Hoosier Youth Challenge Academy and Greenfield Sertoma. Individual donations included money and materials for renovating the kitchen and outdoor equipment.  The camp raised money by lumbering the woods and selling a section of land to a local school corporation for their radio tower.

“Match Day,” sponsored by the Hancock County Community Foundation, resulted in over $23,000 from the foundation and community and was used to build a large recreation hall, provide a concrete floor for the pavilion and, among other things, additional playground and equipment for older youth. In 2012, there were 160 events and over 3,700 visitors. The camp’s goal is to hold 200 events annually and have 5,000 people coming through the gate. Visitors have included a nature camp for underprivileged youth; Boy Scouts International; school, scouts and church groups; and the list goes on and on.

Bell also founded the Brandywine Winds and local Jazz Band that includes both youth and adult members. He also works with band youth at local schools and gives music lessons. His volunteer hours are uncountable but were estimated at 1,700 last year. 

If your future travels take you through Greenfield, please consider taking in a concert or accepting his invitation to “Come grab a fishing pole, participate in any of the other activities at the camp, and plan to spend the night in an air-conditioned bunkhouse!”

South Carolina – Mary Ann Washington Deku

Mary Ann Deku taught for over 38 years in the public schools of Spartanburg, S.C. She initiated many programs to benefit South Carolina students and has participated in many community and state committees to further student education and funding for public education.

In 1970, she developed a voter registration program for her church to address the importance of registration, voting and being active as a voice in community concerns for high school seniors. As Connection Chairman for her Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, she started a citywide project of voter registration at various locations, and, in 1996, the program was started in Spartanburg High School. Over the years, the “Adopt-A-High School Voter Registration Drive” program has expanded to all nine high schools in Spartanburg County.

Her dedication was so great that in 1998, from her hospital bed while recovering from brain surgery, she arranged for other people to carry the torch for her. In doing so, the program was greatly expanded. With the help of eight sororities and fraternities, “Adopt-A-High School Voter Registration Drive” now includes an educational Power Point presentation and involves actual voter registration of eligible students. Students are also offered the opportunity to be trained as a poll worker/manager at the voter registration office. In turn, they work to register high school seniors, thus putting into action what they have learned through the program. Since 1998, approximately 1,500 students have been served each year. A useful component of the program is it has the capability of being replicated for other communities.

The intrinsic value of her 38 years of volunteer service could be exemplified by the following words of Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”  

Through her efforts of over 38 years, scores of high school seniors have received “Adopt-A-High-School Voter Registration Drive” education. They have learned to express their voices wisely through voting choices and helped to safeguard democracy for their generation and those to come.

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