by Susan Ohanian
Our local elementary school regards community service as a high priority, and every
Monday at my town Senior Center, which is a social gathering place for
activities and information, four sixth
graders give up their lunch & recess to volunteer as helpers for the
popular lunch we provide once a week. A volunteer parent ferries the children
between the school and the Center.
Each group of kids does an eight-week stint, and then a new group moves in. Ostensibly,
I’m in charge of the kids. Each group is different, and I supervise this pretty
much the way I operated for years in classrooms: I watch carefully, and occasionally I
nudge. This particular group of kids invented the "Host" role,
wherein one student stands in the reception area and greets people as they
walk in the door. They all found this difficult, but persevered. Even most gregarious adults would find such a role a bit intimidating, and since this
past Monday was the last day of this group’s operation, I decided to let
"host" slide. But “Jim” asked me, "Should I host?" and he
performed superbly, going up to Oldsters, asking, "Would you like me to
hang up your coat?" Such an invitation rather astounds people--and they
always respond with great delight to the courtesy.
All morning, Jim kept asking me, "Do you think I'll be able to do
this again?" I heard him telling a cook, "I will try to do this next
Each Monday, in the last 15 minutes of their time with us, I ask students to take a
dessert and go to tables to “engage” with people eating lunch. The rule is that
every child must go to a different table. When the school gave them a prep, the
kids were told to “collect stories” from Oldsters.
By now, the kids know which Oldsters are most talkative, tell funny stories.
They know that some of the volunteer dishwashers are real cards. In short, they
know where conversation will be easiest and most easy and enjoyable. I confess to
astonishment when I saw the shyest child go to a table where one very old
woman sat all alone. Their conversation soon became very animated and
continued until I had to break it up
when it was time for them to return to school.
Since this was their last time with us at the Senior Center, I gave each
child a thank-you note written on Senior Center stationery. One girl seemed
astounded--and she kept thanking me for writing her a real note. She kept
saying it: a real note.
It bears shouting: We teach who we are. Every day and in every way, that's what we do.
There’s a coda to this story. I’ve noticed that someone paying for lunch at
our Monday gatherings uses money bearing the message "Stamp Money Out of
Politics." Jim noticed some of these bills in the basket & asked about
them. As it happens, I stamp my money similarly so I opened my wallet and
explained the whole deal (It is led by Ben of Ben & Jerry's). Jim was very
very disappointed that I don't carry my stamper with me. He really wanted to
Again, we teach who we are, and I just find myself in a good place
supervising children at the Senior Center every Monday.