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Retirees Bolster Kids' Reading Skills

Experience Corps pairs volunteer tutors with elementary school students who need extra help

AARP Experience Corps tutor Fred Brundage assists third graders Amy Chang, left, and Thiri Than with their reading skills.

Photo by Lianne Milton

AARP Experience Corps tutor Fred Brundage assists third graders Amy Chang, left, and Thiri Than with their reading skills. Brundage, 74, spends 15 hours a week helping Bay Area students.

There's a comfortable sameness to Fred Brundage's arrival around 9 a.m., two days each week, in Christina Harger's third-grade classroom.

The sight of Brundage walking in her Monroe Elementary School door means the handful of children at Table Two "are going to get a little extra attention that day," Harger said.

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It's attention they need, and that's why Harger paired them with Brundage, 74, an AARP Experience Corps volunteer.

The white-haired retired chef and former restaurant manager from San Francisco makes his way to Table Two. Within minutes Brundage is quietly reading to the kids, listening to them read or helping them with their written work.

"I wake up and eat, shower, and I go to teach these kids at school," he said. "Retirement's not for me, I guess."

He's one of about 200 Experience Corps members who help pupils with reading in Bay Area schools. Brundage spends 15 hours a week in seven classrooms at Monroe and another San Francisco school.

"I get so much pleasure from working with these kids, especially at the end of the year when you've seen the light go on with some of them. It's really gratifying."

Success hinges on reading

Experience Corps sends retirees like Brundage into disadvantaged schools in 19 cities nationwide.

This year the 17-year-old program came under the umbrella of AARP, which links its members with pupils in kindergarten through third grade.

Research shows that attaining reading proficiency at that age is most critical to future success. Two out of three U.S. children reach fourth grade unable to read proficiently and, as a result, are four times more likely to drop out of school, according to a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

AARP members overwhelmingly express a desire to volunteer, said Barb Quaintance, AARP senior vice president of volunteer and civic engagement. "This gives us a chance to do something significant for the next generation."

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Volunteers need a high school or equivalency degree, must be fluent in English and undergo background checks.

They come from backgrounds as diverse as real estate and cosmetology, said Paul Olsen, director of the Bay Area Experience Corps. Volunteers serve in 26 schools in San Francisco, San Rafael and Oakland.

The program welcomes newcomers and provides training.

"The only experience needed is caring about the kids," Olsen said. A side benefit is giving children exposure to successful adults with rich life experiences.

Principal Jennifer Steiner said 80 percent of Monroe students are from Latino or Asian families where English is the second language.

Tutors develop relationships with the kids and often move grade to grade with students they've been helping, she said.

More than a tutor

Brundage, who signed on three years ago, called it a win-win.

He recalled a boy from a shaky home life. "I was the only one who showed up for his kindergarten graduation," Brundage said. "None of his family was there."

Harger said another boy whose dad had died struggled with reading and shuffled quietly and sadly through school. She teamed him with Brundage.

At the end of third grade, when the boy seemed more lighthearted and held his head high for the first time, Harger couldn't help thinking that maybe the Experience Corps relationship had something to do with the spring in his step.

Quaintance said AARP wants to expand Experience Corps to more communities across the country in the next five years and "go deeper" in some existing locations.

To inquire about volunteering in the Bay Area, call 415-759-4223 or email ecbatoday@gmail.com.

You may also like: Experience Corps makes a difference. »

Rita Beamish is a writer living in San Mateo, Calif.

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