When the Arlington International Leadership School PTO plans its annual book fair, parent leaders know there’s one group of volunteers they can count on. In this diverse community, grandparents and senior citizens are an essential component of the volunteer ranks, and they’re always ready to help out on one of the school’s busiest days.

“Opening boxes, setting up displays, helping students select a grade-level book means hours of volunteer work,” says Tracie Cooper, a PTO member at the Jackson, Tenn., school. “But the book fair is just one project where seniors are involved in our school. Eating lunch with students, classroom reading, and participating in field day are only a few of the ways we depend on seniors.”

Grandparents and community senior citizens bring unique attributes to the school. Connecting senior citizens with students helps break down cross-generational barriers and stereotypes. And seniors have a depth of life experience that can be enlightening for students as well as parents. In turn, the school and parent group can provide an outlet for seniors to share their talents and time in meaningful ways.

Involvement at Any Age

In Mayfield, Ky., sixth-grade teacher Mike White knows the value grandparents and seniors bring to Central Elementary and the other schools in the Graves County district. “Our teachers realized the need to preserve the history of the early schools in Graves County. And who knows our county history best? Senior adults,” White says. “We ask our older generation to share memories and photos so our students could record history while it is still available. Our goal is to write a book available to the community about each small school.”

To support the social studies curriculum, White and fellow teacher Debbie Smith have invited local veterans to share their experiences one-on-one with students. Over the years, Smith has built an extensive contact list of local veterans, but she suggests the local American Legion chapter as a great place to start compiling your own. “These men and women have become wonderful volunteers for our schools,” she says. “I can call on them for whatever project we are working on.”

At East Intermediate School in Jackson, Tenn., seniors contribute in many ways, says onetime PTO Secretary Mandy Smith. “One gentleman dressed up as Santa Claus, and as a fundraiser we sold tickets for a breakfast with Santa,” Smith recalls. In addition, grandparents solicited items for a silent auction, including a free haircut, a restaurant meal, and gift baskets.

Apache Elementary in Peoria, Ariz., also relies on the support of its senior citizens. “Registration of new students requires extra time that the office staff may not have,” says former PTSA member Carmen Kamrath. “Grandparents greet new families and students as they enter the school. They distribute paperwork and help those who use English as a second language fill out registration forms. Making them feel welcome goes a long way to school success.”

Stress less about volunteer recruitment with the 2 Hour Power pledge program

Connecting With Seniors

The challenge for parent groups is to successfully recruit grandparents and senior citizens, then provide a variety of opportunities that suit these volunteers while being sensitive to their needs. Before bringing them into the school, make sure you understand the school district’s volunteer policy. Are there restrictions or criteria for those who might work directly with students? Are you going to reach out only to family members? What types of programs, activities, and opportunities can you offer that are well-suited to seniors? Is any training required?

To manage the program, consider establishing a coordinator for senior volunteers. The coordinator would be responsible for matching older adults with volunteer opportunities, accommodating their needs, and interacting with school staff. The coordinator might oversee your group’s grandparents club, for example, and organize cross-generational family events. In fact, the senior citizen volunteer coordinator could be a grandparent herself.

You may need to modify projects to allow participation by seniors with physical challenges. Field trips might be too difficult for those with limited mobility; could they help with logistics instead? What about calling to set up schedules with the site? Those with hearing loss may not be comfortable reading aloud to students, but they can talk about their personal histories or the history of the community.

At school, you can reserve premium parking spaces for your senior volunteers, or perhaps an easily accessible workspace could be set aside as a hub for this group. Maybe the senior volunteers could use school equipment not generally available to parent group members. Or perhaps the PTO could provide specially decorated nametags or even T-shirts to identify senior volunteers. These accommodations not only address the possible physical limitations of older volunteers but also demonstrate, to students and parents alike, a high level of respect for their involvement.

Senior adults have a lifetime of experience to share with schools and students. The creative parent group can reap the benefits of reaching out and connecting with them. “This older generation has so much to tell us. They have been through a depression, a world war, the Korean conflict, and have seen the world advance change with the advance of technology,” says Debbie Smith of Central Elementary. “Nothing replaces the valuable lessons they themselves can teach us all.”

More Ways Seniors Can Help

  • Form a grantwriting committee. Retired businessmen may have experience compiling grant proposals. And connections in the corporate world may extend to valuable contacts for funding.
  • Teach English as a second language. Retired teachers in your area know grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure. Students from bilingual families often need extra help.
  • Form a phone committee. Even homebound seniors can do telephone work, whether it’s recruiting volunteers, requesting donations, or just keeping communcation flowing.
  • Care for the class pet during holidays. Pets need daily care from responsible people. Seniors can ensure that the classroom guinea pig or goldfish has a long and happy life.
  • Shelve books in the school media center or operate the copier for teachers. Budget cuts often result in a loss of clerical or paraprofessional assistance, though the workload remains.
  • Read and record a favorite story. Young children often enjoy hearing narration while they turn pages; students with limited English proficiency can also use the recordings at home.
  • Assist with prep work for the art room, either at school or at home. Art projects run more smoothly if some of the preparation, such as sorting, cutting, or folding, is done in advance.
  • Serve on a garden club to maintain the school grounds.
  • Provide coverage in the school office during lunch hour.
  • Act as ushers for school concerts and other events.
  • Make favors or decorations for special occasions.
  • Mentor at-risk students.
  • Provide tutoring on test-taking strategies or academics.
  • Lead an after-school club such as a chess or science club.