- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2002

Staff writer Denise Barnes interviewed Elizabeth Fox, founder of Experience Corps-Washington, D.C.

Question:
Why were you interested in establishing a program for senior citizens?
Answer:
I was director of IONA Senior Services in Northwest for 16 years, and I soon realized older people didn't always have good experiences when they wanted to help out in the community. Yet when they did, it could make all the difference in their day and to their week.
When I heard about Experience Corps, I recognized how good it would be to have this resource available in the District. I felt it would be good for the children and good for the experienced adults. The name and concept of Experience Corps, of course, came from the late John Gardner, a national leader in social health and welfare programs. Mr. Gardner was a founding Experience Corps board member and adviser to [Marc] Freedman throughout the formation of the program.
The program had been piloted in five cities, beginning in 1996, so I used the model, which included volunteers working part-time a few hours a week and volunteers working 15 hours a week or half-time. Half-time volunteers receive a monthly stipend. I visited nonprofits and schools to ask administrators how this kind of team [of experienced adults] might fit in with their curriculums.
Everybody was excited about the program. The principals were excited and so were community-based agencies, so we teamed up with FLOC [For Love of Children, a nonprofit community self-help group] our first program partner during the 1999-2000 school year, with 17 volunteers at Montgomery Elementary School in the Shaw neighborhood.
The volunteers tutored students in reading and helped teachers in the classrooms. And another 10 volunteers all men mentored fifth and sixth-grade boys at Birney Elementary School in Southeast. The program caught on like wildfire.
Q: What are the criteria for volunteering at Experience Corps?
A:
We ask people be 55 or older and have an interest in children. Most importantly, that they be willing to work as part of a team.
We look for volunteers from across the city, since we work in schools located in all four quadrants of the city. I've found the best mixture includes people from the neighborhood where the school is located, as well as people from other District neighborhoods.
We find the volunteers enjoy the fact that there are people with modest educations and those with Ph.Ds, so it's a nice mixture. Our racial makeup with volunteers reflects the District's demographics, which is about 70 percent black and 30 percent white, so volunteers learn from each other.
Q: How do seniors get involved with Experience Corps?
A:
We have twice-a-month information sessions at the Thurgood Marshall Center that begin in the spring and run through the summer months. We're expanding our roster from 90 volunteers to 120 volunteers this fall. So anyone who might be interested in volunteering in the schools or mentoring students can call Roberta Keller, our recruitment specialist, at 202/797-1150.
Folks fill out an application, there's an interview and we conduct background checks. Once that's completed, volunteers receive pre-service training. We don't leave volunteers out there on their own. We have a site coordinator at each of the schools, and Experience Corps and our partners provide regular in-service training.
Q: Which D.C. schools are served by Experience Corps?
A:
Right now, we're in Adams Elementary School in Northwest, Birney Elementary School in Southeast, Bowen Elementary School in Southwest, Montgomery Elementary School in Northwest and Webb Elementary School in Northeast.
We wanted to be in every section of the city so retired people could have a convenient location to volunteer with the schoolchildren. And we selected schools where there was a definite need where the reading scores needed improvement and the children in many cases did not have as much family support as they required.
The principals want us to continue to expand the program in their schools, and they're supportive of our work beyond what I could have ever imagined. The D.C. Superintendent of Schools' Office is also helping us to expand the program.
Q: What's the response among seniors who participate in Experience Corps?
A:
I think the most striking aspect for me is how quickly the relationship forms between the adult and the child despite differences in race or background. It was clear the children just soaked up the individual attention, and that motivated the volunteers it's rewarding for them.
Q: Were there any doubts that Experience Corps could blend into certain areas of the city?
A:
People were very skeptical about our ability to start the program in tough neighborhoods because it would be difficult to get senior volunteers from that neighborhood or other neighborhoods. But the program is now in its third year, and we have over 25 volunteers men and women mentoring and tutoring and loving it at Birney Elementary School.
We have some volunteers who take three buses to get to their two-hour-a-week volunteer jobs. It adds meaning to their days and their week. That's what we all need as we get older. Ninety-nine percent of the volunteers we have interviewed say in some way, "I want to give back." That's a powerful motive and more powerful as one ages.
And I have a passion for making that possible for people. It goes back to when I left IONA. I saw people who had become isolated, people who did not have much meaning in their lives. They were depressed, and I know research demonstrates that the social connections and the giving back in a form that is meaningful to a person can really improve their health and outlook on life.
Experience Corps-Washington, D.C. allows volunteers to become a part of a school family. They fit right in because it's set up as a team. Our volunteers are fantastic and they have patience and initiative.
Children who team up with our volunteers have been selected because of poor reading scores or other reasons students might need extra help. All of our services are provided at the schools, except when we plan a special field trip for the students. For example, the Birney students visited the Capitol during the holidays, with a motorcade escort for a Christmas party.
Q: Do you think seniors will continue to make meaningful contributions in our communities?
A:
The federal government has had the National Senior Service Corps for many years, with the outstanding service of Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions and R.S.V.P. (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program).
Since President George W. Bush made his announcement during his State of the Union Address about the Freedom Corps, the president and some leading senators are interested in supporting more and different ways for millions of retirees to get involved in their local communities.
Experience Corps has been in the forefront of trying out new approaches for matching the time and talents of retirees with children's needs. Keep in mind, not all of our volunteers are retired. One of our volunteers works full time and volunteers two days a week. Generally, these are pretty busy people, but they're ready to add another dimension into their lives.


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