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Violins play at Calusa Elementary thanks to longtime volunteer

The house at 6422 Lomand Ave. in New Port Richey doesn't seem all that special — until you understand what it will mean to hundreds of schoolchildren in the years to come.

It has two bedrooms, two baths, a single-car garage. The lawn is brown. A mailbox attached to the stucco wall next to the front door is stuffed with junk mail and what appears to be an electric bill addressed to the owner, Joan Amanti.

On the afternoon of Feb. 19, Pat Mallett stopped by the house on her way home from work as the media specialist at Calusa Elementary School. She had grown close to Mrs. Amanti, almost like a daughter, and regularly chauffeured her to doctor appointments and the supermarket. Mrs. Amanti, 76, a volunteer at the school, had been taking a taxi until Mallett found out one day about four years ago and insisted on driving her. Imagine shelling out cab fare to get to a job that pays nothing.

Mallett opened the front door. The house was still. She walked into the back bedroom and found Mrs. Amanti tucked beneath her covers, her head resting on the pillow. A paramedic who arrived later comforted Mallett, reminding her that this is how we would all choose to go — in our sleep.

Mallett had grown to love and respect Mrs. Amanti so much, and now she found herself planning a funeral. Mrs. Amanti's husband, Paul, had died of cancer in 1994 and she had no other family. Make that no other relatives. She had a real family at the school she helped for a dozen years as part of the Retired Senior Volunteers Program.

Few people other than Mallett knew just how much Calusa meant to Mrs. Amanti. She took great pleasure in helping children to read. She enjoyed the attention from the kids who played with the cane she needed after retinitis pigmentosa destroyed her vision.

As Mallett searched for Luciano Pavarotti recordings for the memorial service, she thought of her friend's obsession with opera and other fine music. She reflected on Mrs. Amanti's genuine affection for children and how protective she was of their feelings and welfare. Perhaps that was because her own fragility kept her from having children of her own.

Joan Detiefsen weighed 3 pounds at birth and her mother put her in a box by the stove to keep her warm during the final days of the Brooklyn winter in 1933. Later in her childhood, Joan lost some of her hearing to scarlet fever.

She grew up an only child, smart and outgoing with a New York edge, and married Paul after he returned home from World War II. He had survived 55 combat missions as a waist gunner on a B-24 bomber. When it was clear they could not have children, they volunteered through their church to help orphans.

Paul and Joan moved to Largo in the early 1980s and opened a gift shop. The business failed and they moved into the small house in New Port Richey in 1986. Joan took a job with Montgomery Ward at Gulf View Square mall and stayed 17 years until the store closed.

Calusa Elementary gave Joan a creative outlet. One day last year, she had an idea. She wanted to buy violins for the school's music program. She started with two, then two more. Music teachers Jim and Deanna Cheyne embraced the effort and the kids got excited. Their parents chipped in to buy more violins, and by the time the fourth- and fifth-graders performed their Christmas concert, their numbers had swelled to 15.

Mrs. Amanti sat in the audience, her vision now almost gone. The music teacher recognized her for starting the program. "She was so proud," Mallett said.

Two months later, she was gone. But the violin program will remain. Mrs. Amanti made sure of that. Several months before she died, she met with lawyers to draw up a will. She didn't have a great deal, but she did own that house at 6422 Lomand Ave. She would give it to Calusa. She would have the lawyers set up a trust so the money would grow. It would buy more violins; it would buy food and clothing for poor families.

It looks like the house will sell later this month for $55,000. A single mom with two kids has scheduled a closing date.

"Joan wanted the music to continue," said Mallett, "but she also wanted to make sure no child ever had to come to school with shoes too tight or lacking in the basics. She was truly a generous, selfless person."

The Pasco County School District has more than 25,000 registered volunteers, including those who are part of the federally-supported Retired Senior Volunteer Program. "We welcome and love them,'' said Randee Williams, supervisor of the volunteer program. If you would like to join, you can call Williams at (813) 794-2203 or send her an email at RCWillia@pasco.k12.fl.us.

Violins play at Calusa Elementary thanks to longtime volunteer 06/05/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 5, 2010 3:13pm]
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