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A senior moment

How one Experience Corps. volunteer is making a difference

An older man sits cross-legged surrounded by a circle of young, eager eyes looking up at him. His authoritative voice reads a story from a book in his lap. The elementary age children listen intensely, some picking at the food on their trays and others at snacks in their bag lunches. This scene has become common in the halls of Medfield Heights Elementary School.

Medfield Heights Elementary School is just one of the six Baltimore City Schools that has the Experience Corps. program in place. The program places senior citizens into elementary schools as helpers. The 68-year-old man on the floor is Todd Wilson, one of these volunteers.

Wilson, or as the kids call him, Mr. Todd, is a product of Baltimore City Schools. He graduated from Poly High School, although he says that in his day it was called Polytechnic. After high school Wilson worked at a steel mill. He retired two years ago and is now a caring mentor.

"My education began here and it’s ending here," Wilson says of his recent volunteer work in the schools. "It’s a way I can pay back the city of Baltimore for the education it gave me."

Wilson became involved in Experience Corps. through a representative from the AARP.

"They called me and said that Johns Hopkins was about to start a program that I might be interested in," said Wilson. "I did some research and was glad I did."

The program he researched was Experience Corps. The program is a joint venture between Johns Hopkins University, the Greater Homewood Community Corporation, and Baltimore City Schools.

That was a year and a half ago, and now Wilson is extremely happy that he joined. "I can honestly say that it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my life."

"I enjoy working with people," said Wilson. "I’ve worked with people my own age and I didn’t get any fun out of that. This is fun."

Wilson works in a first grade classroom and has a variety of jobs that he performs. However, mentoring and tutoring children is Wilson's biggest task.

Reading with children, or paired reading, is one way Wilson does this. This involves one-on-one time with students in the class who are slower readers. Wilson and the child often make an interesting pair. Just imagine a broad shouldered, stronger, older man with a deep voice paired up with a small 5 or 6-year-old child who barely comes up to his waist.

Megan McLaughlin-Corey, the teacher of the class Wilson volunteers for, says that despite his intimidating stature the children love him.

"Just because he was a steel worker doesn’t mean he can’t sit down and read a book to children," says McLaughlin-Corey.

And that’s what Wilson does. He takes a student aside and reads a book with the child to help build their reading and comprehension skills. In addition to reading, he also administers tests about books he has just read with them. This has proved to be a very valuable learning experience for the children.

"I’ve seen a dramatic change in the kids," said McLaughlin-Corey. "The kids I gave him to work with in September are 20 times better readers now."

However, the children aren’t the only ones learning. Wilson says that learning from the teachers is a great tool. He also said that it is a two-way street and that the children actually help to teach him.

This respect between teacher, students and senior citizen has even started to become a family-like atmosphere.

"You make bonds and grow attached to these children," says McLaughlin-Corey. "Mr. Todd will even come in to see the kids even when he is sick."

Wilson echoes this by saying, "We talk and care about one another."

Johns Hopkins Center on Aging is involved in the program by providing money for Wilson's stipend and in conducting medical research. Don't tell this lively 68-year-old, but Hopkins' test have shown that his health is improving by volunteering. However, Wilson says his greatest rewards come from the children.

Wilson said that in paired reading one day a young boy told him that he and his sister had played school the day before. He said that his sister had been a teacher and then asked if Wilson knew who he had been. After a short pause, the boy said that he had been Mr. Todd.

In looking back at his decision to join the program, Wilson is happy he did and thinks that all Baltimore schools could benefit from the program.

"I don’t know whose idea it was to start the program, but it’s needed throughout the system," said Wilson.

McLaughlin-Coey said, "With all that’s going on in Baltimore City Schools right now, having extra people in the classroom is a big help."

It seems that others agree because a plan to take the program citywide is in the works.

As for Wilson he plans to be volunteering in the schools for a long time. "I hope to be able to go until I drop," said Wilson.

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