Volunteer Grandma's initiative makes difference in Booker T. Washington Elementary classrooms

A small but mighty group of senior women are assisting teachers at Booker T. Washington Elementary as "Volunteer Grandma's."

Mary Bryant is one of the half dozen "Volunteer Grandma's" at the elementary school in Tampa. She's tasked with helping teachers everyday through the "Seniors in Service" program. 

"I have personal connections with all of them," Bryant said with a smile. "They all know me." 

Every day, Monday through Friday, Bryant and about five other senior women spend the morning – from 8 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. at school alongside kindergartners.

"We start with alphabets, then I teach them how to write, spell and recognize their name," she said. "We also work on sounding out sounds to help them to read and figure out words."

Helen Woody, 86, has been doing it since 2014. Before she retired, she was the principal’s secretary at the elementary school.

"They make me feel sometimes like I’m 25," she said through laughter. "When I get up in the morning and think about my little kids, and so much love they give me. And I give them a lot of love."

While the program is about 10 years old, Wednesday, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor announced this work, will no longer be solely volunteer.

"We’ve provided funding for this program – it’s about $24,000/year – so we’ll provide a small stipend for the grandmothers, so it doesn’t interfere with any retirement that they have – and then provide transportation and food costs as well," she said. 

In the city’s billion-plus-dollar budget, Castor said it’s the best money spent. Assistant principal Sa’Tonya Brascom added, this kind of care, is priceless.

"Sometimes as teachers we have to be stern, and sometimes the students may not like us," she said. "So being able to look over at the grandma and say, save me or help me! They really want that love and support."

Bryant said it’s instilling that support of a familiar face that could make all the difference.

"I think that is the most important part – to have confidence in yourself, and high-self-esteem, and everything else will follow," she said. 

The City of Tampa hopes to expand the initiative in the coming years to place more grandparents in classrooms at schools throughout Tampa. 

Right now, Seniors in Service has placed more than 160 volunteers in Pre-K through third grade classrooms throughout Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.