by Linda Murley
Iona Lawhorn has been legally blind since the age of 21. As a blind African American woman coming up in the 1950s, she suffered dual discriminations. She was told that she would never get an education, never hold down a job, never be able to live independently. In spite of these predictions, Lawhorn got a BA in history and had a long career at the Social Security Administration. She learned to tap dance and traveled the world. And now, in retirement, she is helping children learn to read.
Lawhorn, a longtime San Francisco resident, has become a member of Experience Corps, a national organization leveraging the talent, skills and wisdom of adults 55-plus in service to youth. In the Bay Area, more than 200 Experience Corps members spend anywhere from two to 15 hours a week mentoring and tutoring children in need of extra support. And Lawhorn has signed on as the program’s first tutor at Dr. George Washington Carver Elementary School in the Bayview, where Experience Corps is expanding its services.
In the Bayview, Experience Corps has partnered with Malcolm X Academy since 2004 and just expanded to Carver Elementary School at Oakdale and Keith. Of Carver’s 285 students, only one in five are meeting the state standards in language arts and fewer than one in three meet standards in mathematics.
Emily Wade-Thompson, principal at Carver Elementary, says, “Most of our students live in low-income housing or foster care and experience extreme, localized environmental health issues. Despite the daily challenges they face, we are determined to provide the best for our ‘achievers.’ Experience Corps will bring much-needed support to our students and add to the caring and nurturing staff.”
She has good reason to be optimistic. A rigorous study conducted by Washington University in St. Louis shows significant gains by students working with Experience Corps tutors. The central finding: Students made over 60 percent more progress in learning two critical reading skills – sounding out new words and reading comprehension – than similar students not served by the program.
In anticipation of her new role as mentor and tutor, Lawhorn says, “I look forward to reading Braille stories aloud and reciting poetry to the students at Carver. I’ve always felt most comfortable around children. They are not afraid to ask questions about my blindness.”
Lawhorn’s courage and independence will provide a model for the children she works with and an understanding of those who are differently-abled. Children can learn an important lesson in good citizenship and caring for others.
“Experience Corps works because Experience Corps members are carefully screened and trained to support local literacy instruction,” said Lester Strong, the program’s CEO. “Plus most Experience Corps members come from the neighborhoods where they serve. They know these kids, they believe in these kids, and they see a future in them.
“Experience Corps puts a growing national resource, experienced Americans, to work on a pressing national need – giving all students the reading skills they need to succeed,” Strong continued. “There’s no shortage of older adults – nearly 10,000 Americans turn 60 every day – and no shortage of kids who need help. Half of our urban students never graduate from high school. We could be doing so much more to put these two generations together.”
Indeed, the children aren’t the only ones who benefit. Research shows that volunteer service improves the health and well being of seniors, too. Johns Hopkins University found that physical activity, strength and cognitive ability increased significantly for Experience Corps members. In addition, 85 percent of volunteers felt that their lives had improved because of their involvement with Experience Corps. As it turns out, volunteering isn’t just good to do, it’s good for you.
Experience Corps is looking to recruit and train volunteers to serve at George Washington Carver, Malcolm X and other Bay Area schools. Monthly stipends of $200-$280 are available to Experience Corps members serving 10-plus hours per week.
If you would like to become an Experience Corps member or learn more about volunteer opportunities, stipends, and training, please contact Star Bressler or email@example.com or (415) 759-3690, ext. 7315, or visit www.experiencecorps.org.