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Grandparents volunteer time, support at Zephyrhills school

The grandparents tea celebration at Chester Taylor Elementary School was accentuated with the giggles of Alexes Burnette, a bubbly fifth-grader who was enjoying some good-natured banter with the elderly gentleman having a hard time taking a keepsake photograph with his wife's new-fangled smartphone.

"Let me show you," Alexes said before taking the phone from her great-grandfather. She tapped the screen a few times to adjust the settings before handing it back, then returned to pose with her great-grandmother.

Snap. Success. Finally.

"See, now that's why we have grandchildren," Ed Schoening, 74, said with a laugh. "They show us how to use this stuff."

"They learn from us and we learn from them," said great-grandmother Deljean Schoening, 71, who often shares stories with Alexes and her sister, Sadie Hill, 6, about the old days when black-and-white television sets were all the rage. Then there's the shopping ventures to the mall and 10-hour day trips to Busch Gardens, where her husband is known as an enthusiastic roller coaster rider.

Turns out, they also know their way around the Chester Taylor Elementary campus.

"Any time they tell us to be here, we're here," Deljean Schoening said. "We go to all the events — Muffins With Mom, Thanksgiving lunches, Student of the Month and open house. It's really fun being a part of their lives and having them want to be with us. It keeps us young."

No doubt it's those kind of exchanges that build rapport, along with a valuable resource that Linda Albertson has been tapping into since she came on as volunteer coordinator at the school five years ago.

Albertson was expecting about 100 to attend the school's first celebration of National Grandparents Day, which since 1978 has been held annually the Sunday after Labor Day. About 300 showed up.

"We were very surprised at the turnout," said Albertson, who with the help of volunteers set out a spread of cookies, tea and coffee along with a craft activity and the opportunity for the older and younger set to ham it up in a makeshift photo booth. "I didn't know how involved the grandparents were. We had them coming across the state."

Some grandparents are primary caretakers of their grandchildren, and more than half the school's volunteers are grandparents or grandparent figures, Albertson said. "A lot of them are snowbirds who have grandchildren up north who return to us in October."

Some help students with reading skills in the classroom; others work as a group in their communities, such as the local residents who knit hats come winter; and others sponsor annual book drives so every student can pick out their own book.

Others, such as Marilyn Ducharme, simply help fill the gaps.

Ducharme, 72, is a former church secretary who has volunteered for two years at Taylor Elementary in Zephyrhills. She's worked individually in the classroom with students, but her most recent stint is in the media center, where she helps shelve and check out books, taking time out to enjoy lunch in the cafeteria with her youngest grandson, John Robert Newton, 6.

"They (the school) do not have a full-time librarian, so they need me there," Ducharme said, adding that working with children is also a way to fulfill a long-held desire.

"I always wanted to be a schoolteacher, but I never was able to get that dream. This is the next best thing," she said. "There's fulfillment, enjoyment, satisfaction. I feel useful. I'm helping. I'm able to serve, and I think that's my gift — serving."

Michele Miller can be reached at miller@tampabay.com

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How to help out

• Are you a senior who is interested in volunteering in the schools? The Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) provides meaningful opportunities for people 55 years of age or better to participate in their community through volunteer service. For information, call (813) 794-2207, (727) 774-2207 or (352) 524-2207.

Grandparents volunteer time, support at Zephyrhills school 09/12/13 [Last modified: Friday, September 13, 2013 5:11pm]

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