In a corner of the library at the Littlebrook School in Princeton, 88-year-old Honey Rosenberg sits with kindergartener Emily Ewig as they read “Danny and the Dinosaur” together. Sometimes, if a story calls for it, they dance and jump around.
At a table nearby, 90-year-old Bob McHugh reads a book from the “Dog and Bear” series with Lexi Jones, 6, and Leo Giacopelli, 5.
Through the Princeton Senior Resource Center’s GrandPals program, volunteers read each week to more than 300 students at Littlebrook, Riverside, Community Park and Johnson Park schools in Princeton. The Princeton Area Community Foundation provided a 2015 Fall Greater Mercer Grant to help fund the program that pairs 110 seniors with children in kindergarten through second grades.
The program benefits both the youngsters and their GrandPals by encouraging literacy and interaction between generations.
Research indicates that early literacy is important to academic success, while support from adults helps build lifelong resiliency, according to the senior center. The senior volunteers often become friends with each other, reducing loneliness and isolation that can be common later in life. Research shows social interaction and a sense of purpose is important to healthy aging.
The Senior Center always welcomes new volunteers, and the program has been so successful that it has been replicated in both Cranbury and Trenton.
“We certainly appreciate the grant from the Community Foundation,” said Olivian Boon, the program director, who holds a master’s degree in education of the deaf. “It’s wonderful to have program support when so many people love it.”
And it is a program that is loved – by the seniors, by the teachers and the students.
“I love the program,” said Rosenberg, a retired teacher who joined the program about six years ago and reads to children in 11 different sessions, Monday through Thursday. “I think it’s important to give back to the community. I can’t make a large donation, but I can donate my time.”
For a full half-hour, the children are interacting and fully-engaged, getting lots of attention from a grown-up, said teacher Melissa O’Donnell, whose class was among the first to participate in GrandPals when it began in 1997.
“We’ve always loved this program,” she said. “The parents and the children look forward to it.”
Lexi, 6, who was reading with McHugh, said the program is “just super-fun.”
Their GrandPal, McHugh, also enjoys his weekly visit to the school.
“I’m having the greatest fun I’ve had in the longest time,” he said. “These kids are wonderful.”
The GrandPals who read to O’Donnell’s kindergarten class range in age from 50-something to 93, and they are dedicated. They come to the school in snow and in downpours.
They meet with the same children throughout the year to provide consistency.
“It’s a win-win for everybody. I come out of here feeling like I’m on Cloud 9,” said Susie Travers, who joined the program after her grandchildren moved to California and Texas.
When Jan Johnson retired from her job as a children’s librarian at the Princeton Library, her grandchildren lived nearby. But they later moved to Chicago.
“I needed a kids-and-books-fix,’’ she said, adding that she’d already been a bit of a consultant to the group, so joining was a “no-brainer.”
Robert Smythe of Princeton worked for the state for 30 years, but his parents, grandfather and an uncle were teachers. He always liked working with children, had been a coach, and thought it would be nice to give back to the community, so he joined GrandPals.
He enjoyed it so much that he became a substitute teacher in the Princeton School District.
Susan Simon, of Skillman, is a retired English teacher who always read aloud to her students.
“I think this was a great thing to do,” she said. “Kindergarten is the level where you’ve got to catch them.”
Jean Crane of Princeton always read to her own children when they were young. Why did she join GrandPals?
“I’m old,” she said. “And I’m surrounded by people who are old. It’s so nice to see bright young faces.’’
Working with kindergarten students is delightful, said Susan Thayer.
“They’re so innocent and so eager to learn,” said Thayer, who once had a student ask why all the GrandPals wore glasses. “I just love that age.”
When asked why she joined the program Florence Sharpless, 93, of Princeton said she loved working with children. She has a stepson who was 7-years-old when she married his father, but she never had any biological children, she said.
“Maybe it’s because I never had a child of my own,” she said. “I think I should have been a teacher.”
Instead, she said, she worked in an office during her entire career, including a time at CBS Television when “tv came into being.”
“I would love to spend more time with them,” Sharpless said of the children. “I’ll take whatever they have to offer. …They tell me their stories – about their grandparents, about things they’ve done.”
She used to read twice a week, but had to cut back because she now cares for her 95-year-old sister-in-law.
“So I don’t have the time that I used to have,” she said. “But once a week, I’m here.”