Senior-Student Mentoring Can Be Great Win-Win

Experience Corps program shows that students learn more and seniors gain friends and better health.

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Effectively pairing senior volunteers with students is one of the big win-win opportunities in virtually every community in the country. There is great need in the schools, and it's gotten more acute during the recession. Looking ahead, school budgets have been sapped by falling tax revenues and government spending cutbacks. Meanwhile, the future vitality of our country -- successful young people who can out-compete their peers from other nations -- is being put at more and more risk. Our public education system is in serious trouble.

[ See America's Best Affordable Places to Retire.] Enter a growing stream of retired folks who've enjoyed stable and successful careers, are loaded with skills and experience, and eager to give back to their local communities. What better match to make than between such retirees and students in need? That's certainly true in theory. But in talking with one of the country's most successful senior tutoring and mentoring programs -- Experience Corps -- it's clear that a lot of work needs to go into successful partnerships. Just showing up at your neighborhood school can be successful, but more by accident than design.

Experience Corps doesn't claim its approach is the only or even best way to engage seniors with kids. But it does claim that it works, and has the research to prove it. The Washington-based nonprofit has Experience Corps programs in 22 cities, with a total of about 2,000 senior volunteers and 20,000 students. The program works with younger students -- kindergarten through third grade -- and focuses its efforts on at-risk children in lower-income areas.

"There are now 78 million baby boomers, and 10,000 of them a day are turning 60," says Experience Corps CEO Lester Strong. "What a tremendous vacuum it would be if they exited the workplace and withdrew all that talent and skill from American society." At the same time, there is a large and growing generation of children who are headed for academic, economic, and social failure if they don't receive enhanced support during their early years.

In the cities with Experience Corps programs, that support doesn't come cheap, averaging between $1,000 and $2,000 a year per student. More than half of the money flows right back out to participating volunteers, in the form of stipends and help in defraying travel and related tutoring expenses. Finding the right volunteers, training them, and successfully matching them with students also requires staff and money.

[See 10 Essentials for Successful Retirements.]

The benefit of this approach is reflected in volunteers who stay committed to the program and their students, and go well beyond the minimums in providing support. Strong says research has shown that a student needs to have at least 35 one-on-one sessions a year with a volunteer to make sustained progress in reading and verbal skills.

Mary Gunn is executive director of Generations Inc., the nonprofit that operates the Experience Corps program in Boston. She notes that most of the area's volunteers come from the same neighborhoods as the schools where they serve, and that many are from the same backgrounds as the kids they help. "They are very rooted in their local communities and feel like they are doing something meaningful to help their neighborhoods as well as the students."

This kind of volunteering experience is very different than working with student and young professional volunteers, Gunn has observed. Younger persons might "be in it for a year or two," she says. "Older adults are in it for the long haul, which allows them to build strong relationships with the kids, and also strong relationships with local communities."

Gunn also credits on-site support of program volunteers with helping the program to succeed. "Part of the success for us is that we put somebody right at the school every day" to work with the program, including administrative support, evaluation, and feedback to volunteers and students. Volunteers need to be made part of a team, she says, and succeeding at this effort helps create a community of peers that acts as a social network for retired participants.

In fact, the social benefits of volunteering in Experience Corps extend to tangible health benefits. According to research, volunteers see their health improve after working in the program. "We do have really great data on how our members benefit," Strong says. "They tend to be more fit, to be more mentally acute, to suffer less from depression, and enjoy a stronger social network."

"Probably, 90 percent of them would say, 'This is why I get up in the morning,'" if asked to evaluate their volunteer experience, he adds. "Because of their life experiences, they have the ability to see the whole child. They're not just teaching to a task. That's why we call it both a tutoring and a mentoring program. And it's because of that that the children, many of whom have not had the chance of interacting with an older adult, really thrive."

[See Join the Senior Surge in Physical Fitness.]