Having the best senior moments
Wanting to experience more than just the four walls of his home, Howe looked for a way to stay active. He found it as a senior volunteer in the Hillside Middle School transitional special education program.
“I met a woman and mentioned that I had retired from working,” Howe said. “She told me about a program and I said I'll just give it a try.”
That was 15 years ago.
Howe, 75, has been a fixture in the Hillside Middle School transitional special education classroom ever since. Each week, he spends 30 hours working with children with severe physical, emotional and intellectual handicaps.
“He's like a grandfather figure,” said special education classroom teacher Karen Ricciardi. “He's so natural with them and they respond so well.”
His second career as a school volunteer began when the Foster Grandparents Program matched him with Hillside.
“When I went in, I had no clue about this,” Howe said. “All I remember is the principal brought me into the special needs room.”
It is an environment in which students need one-on-one interaction with adults. Howe connected with students from the beginning.
“You've got to win them over, so I talk to them on their level,” Howe said.
Riccardi sees Howe's good humor and easygoing style with the children as a big asset in her classroom. Paraprofessional Nadine Lutas has worked in the Hillside classroom with Howe for the past 13 years and sees the interaction every day.
“He's very special, it makes him happy because that is the way he is,” Lutas said.
Honored by the Board of School Committee earlier this month for his volunteer work, Howe brushes off the praise.
“This is as much therapy for an older person as it is for a younger person,” Howe said. “I don't want to sit home watching the walls if I don't have to.”
There are more than 160 seniors working in schools in the state through the Foster Grandparent Program, about a half-dozen in Manchester.
Foster Grandparents is part of Senior Corps, a federal initiative which connects people over 55 with organizations and people in need.
“The premise is that they will work in the schools or in nonprofit child care centers, working directly with children who need extra help,” said Dee Lapierre a program coordinator with the agency's Concord office. “They are there to provide support in the classroom under the guidance of the teacher.”
The program office handles screening and background checks and arranges placements. Volunteer interests and skills are matched to the needs of the school programs.
“Seniors have a lot to offer, they love children or they wouldn't do this,” Lapierre said.
During a typical day in the classroom, Howe will spend some of his time interacting with individual students and part of the day easing the burden on the classroom teacher and paraprofessionals. He gets snacks for the children and sets up their lunches in the cafeteria, all the while soothing youngsters when they become frustrated while trying to learn simple tasks.
It is a presence the students respond to and the staff appreciates.
“He reads my mind,” said Lutas. “He knows what do to and does it very well.”
A widower with four daughters, 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, Howe paused from bantering with a special needs students during a busy morning in the classroom and reflected on changes in schools over the decades.
“When I was a kid, these kids didn't have any special ed and some of them had the capability to learn something,” he says. “It's amazing what they do with these kids.”
A few years ago, Howe cut back from volunteering during the summer, but during the school year, it's 30 hours in the classroom, every week school is in session.
“It's a nice thing for old people to do, it keeps you alert and keeps you going,” Howe said. “If you sit around, what are you going to do?”
Some of the students he once worked with are in their 30s. Sometimes he runs into them around town and makes sure to say hello.
And he's ready for make more friendships.
“It's been great. I work with the kids and I love it,” Howe said. “I'll just keep doing it until my health gives out.”
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Bill Smith may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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