Earlean Lewis and her sister Mary had a plan: When they retired, they would finally travel together, something they had wanted to do for decades.
“We wanted to go cross-country from Georgia to California — and that was just the first trip,” says Earlean, 68, of Macon, Georgia.
But they never got to take that trip.
Earlean and Mary had always been close, even though Mary was 11 years older. “She always had time for me,” says Earlean, who was the youngest of eight children. “She included me with her friends; I even called her boyfriend ‘our boyfriend!’”
Even after Mary got married and moved to Miami, their connection remained strong. The two sisters wrote letters and, once long-distance calling was free, they spoke every day, sometimes twice. They managed to visit a couple of times a year, with young Earlean spending summers with Mary in Miami.
“We got to live each other’s lives,” Earlean remembers. “We didn’t keep diaries; we just told everything to each other.”
Sadly, Mary became ill shortly before Earlean retired in 2014, and died only a few months after Earlean left the workforce for good. Without Mary to travel with, Earlean’s retirement looked very different from what she had planned. She took Zumba and water aerobics classes to pass the time, but she knew she wanted to do something more meaningful. “I’m a praying person,” says Earlean. “I asked for guidance about what to do next.”
When a friend approached her with a flier for AARP Foundation Experience Corps, a community-based program that pairs adults over 50 with young students to help them become better readers by third grade, Earlean knew it was the sign she had been looking for.
Earlean had worked with children at church, teaching vacation bible school and bible study, so tutoring sounded appealing and not entirely foreign. And even though she hadn’t tutored before, the training prepared her for the new experience.
“I was nervous the first day, but ready,” she says. “The trainers are knowledgeable and very patient. You can ask questions and you leave with a manual that has all the information you need. There’s also a coordinator assigned to each school who assists the volunteers, so you can’t go wrong.”
Helping the students with their reading had unexpected benefits for Earlean. “We help them, and they help us. My children are grown, my grandchildren are grown. But now I can reach back and see life through the eyes of an 8-year-old,” she says. “When you see these little children smiling at you and they’re excited about what they just learned, it makes you feel so good. That helps us too, as seniors, to keep our minds active.”
Another benefit of the program was the opportunity it provided for new social connections. Earlean made friends with several other tutors in the program, talking between tutoring sessions and meeting up for lunches, when they would often problem-solve about their students.
When asked why she recommends volunteering to other older adults, Earlean replies, “In retirement you can still learn to do something new. You’re done with your career, and now you want to give back to your community.”
Earlean’s grief over the loss of her sister is still palpable, but tutoring through Experience Corps helped her find a sense of purpose in her retirement.
“I needed something to take my mind off the things I couldn’t change, to focus on ways I could help,” she says. “Giving children the gift of reading — that lasts a lifetime.”
Learn more about AARP Foundation Experience Corps and how to become a volunteer.
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