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Published Sep. 9, 2005

A 71-year-old woman tutors students at Blanton Elementary School as part of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program.

Wearing gold lame loafers, Ernestine Thornton was ready as always when the No. 11 bus arrived at Heatherwood Apartments at 9:12 Thursday morning. Her shoulder bag rested inside a basket that was attached by bungee cord and two leather dog collars to her metal walker.

Thirty-one minutes and one transfer later, Miss Thornton got off at 64th Street and prepared to cross at the light to Blanton Elementary School. She looked carefully to the right and to the left as cars whizzed by. "I have to go fast," she said.

The 71-year-old former Pinellas County teacher is one of more than 1,500 members of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program. She takes the roundabout bus ride to Blanton every Tuesday and Thursday because she loves children.

"If I stayed home all day I'd get bored," she said.

Miss Thornton learned about RSVP four years ago at a meeting at her apartment complex. She wanted to do some volunteer work and signed up when she found out there was a need for elementary school tutors. She tutored kindergarteners at Pinellas Park Elementary and helped in the library before coming to Blanton in September.

She goes wherever she's needed at the school. Sometimes she helps with math or writing. Sometimes she assists with an art project or reads to a child in the library.

"She's very involved with the children," Blanton principal Debi Turner said. "She takes such joy in being asked to read to them. The children relish the one-on-one attention. I wish I could get more Miss Thorntons."

She said having Miss Thornton around teaches the children to respect a different generation. Joe Love, Blanton's volunteer coordinator, said Miss Thornton's physical limitations have been "a blessing" to the children.

"It makes them aware that even if you have limitations, there's a place for you in life," he said.

Jane Hellinger's first-grade class usually is in session when Miss Thornton arrives, but the children are used to her entering between 9:45 and 10. On Thursday she settled into a blue plastic chair near Kaitlyn Woods, a 7-year-old she has been working with the past few months.

Kaitlyn had news for her. She lost her front tooth since the last time she had seen her. Miss Thornton told her that losing teeth is something that happens to people her age also.

Kaitlyn was arranging words written on individual pieces of paper into sentence order and pasting them to a worksheet. "That's perfect," Miss Thornton said when she had finished. "You've got everything in the right order."

Around 10:30, Miss Thornton said goodbye to Kaitlyn and Mrs. Hellinger and moved on to Jennifer Sabatino's fourth-grade class. Several children murmured soft "hellos" as she headed toward a hexagonal-shaped table near the window.

Mrs. Sabatino asked her class if anyone was still having problems with division. A half-dozen hands shot up. She chose three children to work with Miss Thornton.

When Adrienne Abrams, 9, and Thuo Ngo and Eliana Agudelo, both 10, were seated at the table, Miss Thornton began the lesson.

The first problem was 168 divided by 3.

"Will 3 go into 1?" Miss Thornton asked. They shook their heads.

"Will 3 go into 16?" They nodded yes.

"We used to call it borrowing and carrying. I don't know what you call it now," she said.

"Borrowing and carrying," the children chorused. They all laughed.

"Three into 18 should go evenly, shouldn't it?" They agreed.

"The answer is 56. Do you understand it? Let me see how you did it."

They passed their papers to her and she nodded approvingly.

They worked a few more problems. Eliana was beginning to understand. After she finished four problems, she started working ahead. She offered to help Thuo, who was still having trouble.

Miss Thornton suggested that the children work a problem on their own and then checked Adrienne's paper.

"Uh-uh, not quite. The last part of this is wrong." Adrienne took her paper back and erased a few numbers. She watched Miss Thornton helping Thuo. She transferred the information to her paper and worked the next problem on her own.

"With 26 children, it's hard to get to each one," Mrs. Sabatino said. "Miss Thornton is a second set of hands to help with the kids. They love to work with her."

A native of Clearwater, Miss Thornton went to North Ward and South Ward schools and then attended Clearwater Junior and Senior high schools.

"I always thought I would like to teach, but I had to make my own way," she said. "My mother said, "I'll put you through high school but anything you get beyond that you'll have to do yourself.' "

She attended St. Petersburg Bible Institute in 1949 and went to St. Petersburg Junior College from 1953 to 1955. She supported herself and her mother by selling subscriptions door to door for the Evening Independent and by typing labels in Webb's City's pharmacy department. She earned a bachelor's degree in religious education in 1964 and a master's degree in theology in 1965 at Florida Beacon College.

After receiving a bachelor of arts degree in English in 1970 at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg, she worked as a library assistant in the St. Petersburg public library and then went to Keswick Christian School as a librarian. In 1972, she became a Pinellas County substitute teacher.

"They called me for most everything, but my specialty was library and English," she said. "I taught at 16th Street Middle School, Lakewood Elementary, Dixie Hollins and Campbell Park."

But she needed steadier work. She took a clerical job at the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines in 1979. She returned to SPJC in 1990 and completed an associate of science degree in medical records when she was 61.

She was diagnosed with uterine cancer the next year and took early retirement. A few months later, she had surgery for a herniated disc and in 1995 she had breast cancer. Although the cancer is in remission, she has osteoarthritis, osteoporosis and a lymphatic system disorder. She broke her hip in October and spent five weeks in rehabilitation.

"I'm not in the best health, but I think I'm doing quite well," she said.

She never learned to drive and she never married.

She said she is very conservative. She thinks educators have become a "a little too liberal" since she was in the classroom. She favors the fundamental school approach.

She believes that if children are motivated to learn they will do their best work.

"You try to think of innovative ideas to spur their thinking. Praise them if you can. Try to pick out what they do right and emphasize that," she said.

By the time Miss Thornton catches the No. 75 bus from Blanton at 12:50 p.m. for her trip home on Tuesdays and Thursdays, she's a little tired. But most days she leaves the school with a sense of accomplishment.

"I don't know whether it's my influence entirely," she said. "But I feel like I might have helped a little."

The Program

The Retired and Senior Volunteer Program was launched in 1971 with $500,000 in federal funds. Nationally, it has grown to include 760 projects with more than a half-million senior volunteers. In Pinellas County, the program is sponsored by the Pinellas Opportunity Council.

According to RSVP's fact sheet, the program's purpose is to create meaningful opportunities for people of retirement age to participate more fully in their communities through volunteer service. The primary focus of the program is on the needs and interests of older people serving as senior volunteers.

The volunteers serve a variety of organizations, agencies and institutions, including schools, libraries, courts, hospitals, nursing homes, parks, museums and other community service centers.

Any person 55 or older who is willing to volunteer on a regular basis is eligible for membership in RSVP. There is no minimum number of hours per week required, but most members serve at least one half day a week at their volunteer stations.

For information about RSVP in Pinellas County, call 327-8690, ext. 22.