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Volunteer tries many keys to unlock passion for learning

Webb Potts, 79, stays young by spending time with the young.

Make that the very young. He is a volunteer in Gaye Stokes' second-grade classroom at Hernando Elementary School.

Potts has been volunteering in the Citrus County school system since 1981, when he worked with the gifted program under Elizabeth Joyner at Inverness Middle School.

"I've always been interested in gifted children," said Potts.

He sees the whole picture when he deals with a gifted child. They are more than bright children who want to learn; they have difficulties to overcome, the same as any other child.

"The common perceptive of gifted (children) is that they don't have any problems," Potts said. "If they're smart, why don't they get all A's?" he said people might wonder. "But they need help."

Potts has been learning ways to help others ever since he studied psychology at the University of Chicago while he was in the Army. Later, he received his bachelor's degree in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. When he began volunteering in Citrus County schools, he audited courses, such as counseling gifted and learning disabilities students, at the University of Florida.

His interest in helping children not only to learn but to deal with their problems stems from a time when his grandson came to live with him and his wife for a time.

They only had him for six months, and had helped him significantly, he said, when the child's mother demanded his return. The had no recourse but to return the child.

It hurt Potts to have to do so, but the situation seemed to trigger a need in him to help other children. "I would rather light one candle than curse the night," he said.

When he is working with children, he explained, "What I do is try to get to know them and my focus is on the child, the student.

He remembers one gifted child who had a behavior problem. He said he spent a lot of time with him and found out he was interested in science fiction.

"I would discuss science fiction with him and got him a science fiction magazine and found a book to lend him," Potts said.

His work with the children helps them get on track with the projects they are attempting to do and, perhaps even more importantly, it gives the pupils someone to talk to.

Nathan Conley, a 7-year-old in the class where Potts is now volunteering, knows him from school and his neighborhood. "He lets me go fishing in his pond," said Nathan, who says Potts feels like a friend to him. "He's pretty smart. He's teaching me some things and he likes space a lot."

Britton Durbin, 8, thinks Potts makes the class kind of exciting. "He helps us with dinosaurs and sometimes mathematics and he helps Mrs. Stokes, too. I like him and he does a lot of stuff for us."

When he began volunteering, Potts said, "I learned to be with the children and solve the problems that I had with them."

Now he says, "I ask them if they have a fire in their bellies. I am on fire doing what I am doing with them right now. I keeps me going at 79.

"It is the most thrilling and rewarding thing I have done in my life," he said. "I have found them to be wonderful."

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