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Retirees working to help school kids
Advancing Years and Minds

"Whoop!" said Frederick, "Mr. Leroy!" Jumping up from his seat, Frederick rushed across the classroom and gave his mentor, Leroy Nellis, a hug.

Nellis, budget manager for Travis County, has mentored Frederick since he was in kindergarten, when Frederick admits he was a poor reader with "anger issues."

For five years, Nellis has followed Frederick, now a fourth-grader at Allan Elementary in East Austin, as he changed schools. During their weekly lunches, Nellis talks to Frederick about making the right choices and encourages him to realize his dreams of going to college and becoming a professional athlete.

"The kids on the East Side [of Austin] do not understand how to connect the dots to get them where they want to go," Nellis said. "I try to identify for them how to connect the dots--you study hard in school, your parents read to you nightly, you stay out of trouble and you go to college. These will be first-generation college students."

Fostering a legacy
After touring Travis County's jail facilities as part of his duties as budget manager, Nellis decided he wanted to do something that would help children stay out of the criminal justice system.

"I called Austin Partners in Education and asked them to assign me to the most challenging student in the system," Nellis said. "The assistant principal told me [Frederick] was in her office for disciplinary problems every day. He was hitting other students, misbehaving in class and disrupting other students.

"I've seen him one hour per week for the last five years. I cannot believe that you can make as big a difference in a child's life, in their attitude and learning, with just one hour a week."

Frederick said his reading skills and his attitude have improved since meeting Nellis, and he visits the principal's office only a few times a week, as opposed to "every five minutes" when he was in kindergarten.

The turnaround Nellis sees in Frederick drives him to find mentors for other kids, he said.

"We need to recruit a mentor for every high-risk child, and we would solve our education problem," Nellis said. "I've seen it happen."

And Nellis believes the retired or nearly retired population is perfect for the job.

"Mentoring could satisfy the relationship requirement for a happy retirement," he said.

Retirees also have more flexible schedules that would allow them to visit the kids during their lunch hour, Nellis said.

Retired not tired
"Everyone wants to feel useful and helpful," said Carole Barasch, communications director for the AARP Texas, a nonprofit organization for people age 50 and older.

"I think if you didn't volunteer in your working years, it can fill a void during your retirement," Barasch said. "Social isolation can be a big problem that can lead to an unhealthy situation and can possibly lead to depression. Volunteering can give you a feeling of belonging, and that's extremely important to the human spirit."

Barasch anticipates a surge of activity when baby boomers begin to retire, she said.

"Boomers have historically been steeped in volunteerism," she said. "They will be looking [for] and creating all kinds of volunteer opportunities for themselves."

Boomers have been raging about getting old, Barasch said. Not feeling their age is going to force them to look for other ways to contribute.

"As a group, they've been very hardworking and very committed," she said. "They do find a lot of inventive, creative ways to help."

Pam Gray, the principal at Allan Elementary School, said she would love to have a mentor for all 420 students at her school. The school has about 40 mentors for the 2004-05 school year.

"All of our kids could benefit from having a special adult visit with them," Gray said. "Just the life experiences that retirees have [are] good for our kids."

Life experience needed
Bob Rutishauser, 74, said he had only been retired one week before becoming involved with the Austin Project, which brings disadvantaged people, particularly children and young families, into the mainstream of Austin life. He also began mentoring a sixth-grade boy at Fulmore Middle School.

Rutishauser's student is now in eighth grade at Dobie Middle School and has improved academically, moving from special education classes to regular education classes and passing them all, Rutishauser said.

"The reason his counselor thought he could use a mentor was because he lives with his mother, sister and grandmother, and the counselor thought it would be good for him to have male involvement as well," Rutishauser said. "We meet once a week on Thursdays for lunch, and I attend as many of his athletic events as I can. Before the start of the year, we went out and watched a Texas Longhorn [football] practice. He's an enthusiastic Longhorn fan."

Without his volunteer activities, Rutishauser said he would find retirement unfulfilling.

"I'd probably be playing golf, and I'm a mediocre golfer, so I'd be a very frustrated person," he said.

An ounce of prevention
Not only does mentoring benefit the mentors and the kids, it also helps the schools, said Rose Gabriel, executive director of Texas Partners in Education, a nonprofit organization that supports school volunteer organizations across the state.

"The level of volunteers you are getting, you'd have to pay them between $14 and $19 per hour," Gabriel said. "Sometimes when you are restricted by budget, you don't get to be as creative, so it's nice to have someone come in from the outside and give a fresh perspective. Volunteers make it possible for schools to provide more programs."

Katrin Brewer, executive director of the Austin Partners in Education, estimates volunteers contributed $3.2 million in mentoring and tutoring hours to the Austin Independent School District (ISD) during the 2004-05 school year, but said there is room for at least 40,000 more volunteers.

Ultimately, donating time puts money into the retirement system and keeps it out of the prison system, Brewer said.

"These students are going to be paying our retirement," Brewer said. "If they drop out, they take resources from the system. If we want our retirement benefits to stay at a reasonable level, we have to go and help these students."

Brewer said both the California and Michigan prison systems plan their capacity based on the number of third- and fourth-grade students who are unable to read.

Nellis believes working with elementary kids is especially important to breaking this cycle, he said.

"I have been on fire about elementary [schools] because what I believe is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," Nellis said.

In her 2004 report Forgotten Children, Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn also recommended an initiative that would bring together senior citizens and high-risk children. The report recommended the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services work with volunteer organizations to develop a "Foster Grandmas and Grandpas" program to recruit senior volunteers to mentor and support foster children.

In Austin, people interested in volunteering at a school can visit www.austinpartners.org and register online. Austin Partners conducts a criminal background check and matches volunteers with students. In other cities, people can find volunteer opportunities through organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and Web sites that offer a searchable database, such as www.mentoring.org.

Bruce Wright