School program pairs seniors with students

By on April 27, 2011

Brenda Wangman works on counting skills with a second grade Fulton Elementary student. Wangman is a member of STEP, a program that employs senior citizens in different departments throughout the Ephrata Area School District. (Photo courtesy of EASD)

For Brenda Wangman, teaching children has been a lifelong passion. Now in retirement, the former school teacher is able to continue fulfilling her passion through the Ephrata Area School District s Senior Tax Exchange Program (STEP). The fact that she also earns $550 a year is, in her words, icing on the cake.

Since the STEP program was launched more than four years ago, it has had a positive impact on the lives of seniors and schools, district officials said. You really feel appreciated, Wangman said of her involvement with STEP. I volunteer in a lot of things, but this is the one thing that I do that I come away the most fulfilled.

STEP is simple. Those 65 and older who reside in the district apply through the district s human resources office to find an area of service. Possible areas of service include, but are not limited to, copying and office support, helping in the classroom, reading with students, assisting in the library or at the playground and taking tickets at athletic events. In exchange for their hours of service, STEP workers receive up to $550 per person ($1,100 per household), that may be applied to their school property taxes. Wangman signed up for STEP when the program began in January 2007. For the past four years, she has spent about two hours a week in Jonelle Shenk s second grade classroom at Fulton Elementary doing everything from helping children master math facts to chaperoning field trips. It s wonderful to watch a child s eyes light up when you ve helped them to figure out something that they weren’t able to understand before, Wangman said. You really don’t realize how much you are impacting lives.

Barbara Rennix agrees. She, too, has been with the STEP program from the very beginning. A retired nurse and counselor, Rennix began volunteering at Highland Elementary to be close to her grandson partly out of curiosity to see what education was like today. I admire the teachers! I came away with a new appreciation for the profession, Rennix said. I wish I could work with every student, just to give them love and encouragement.

Rennix spends one morning each week rotating among kids in kindergarten, first grade and second grade, often working in small groups focused on reading, math or other class work. She’s even helped teach children to tie their shoes. She said she cherishes the interaction with the students. I feel like I am a cheerleader, she said of her role in STEP, to help them to believe in themselves.

Far beyond benefiting local seniors, STEP has been a win-win" for all involved, said school board member Neal Reichard. (STEP participants) been a true asset by looking at things from a different view, said Reichard who was instrumental in getting the program started. STEP member Nancy Patton has worked with the high school office staff on ways to streamline copy jobs use less paper and limit the amount of colored paper used. I enjoy working with the teachers and the ladies in the office, Patton said. They re very appreciative of the time I save them so they can spend more time in the classroom.

Patton is working for herself and as the alternate for her husband, who is unable to work himself. The $1,100 in earnings, she said, are a great help. Like Patton’s husband, many senior citizens may not be able to get involved with STEP due to health or other concerns. In that case, an alternate" may work on the senior s behalf, applying the earnings calculated at minimum wage, to the senior. Reichard said that he would like to reach out and show community members that they can make a difference for a senior citizen, simply by working an hour a week in the school on someone else’s behalf. STEP openings are available. The district has budgeted for about 30 seniors to participate currently about 12 seniors work in the program, according to Stephanie Gingrich, the district s director of community relations. To be accepted into STEP, applicants must pay for a doctor s physical and background clearance. Reichard noted, however, that this is just a one-time cost. Patton, Rennix and Wangman each said they ve tried to get the word out and recruit others to the program. They hope more seniors will take advantage of STEP. They need to come and start and find that anybody can do it, Wangman encouraged. Rennix agreed, adding that seniors can serve no matter where their skills or abilities lie. Reichard came was voted onto the school board in 2003 looking for ways to save seniors money. He found his answer in 2004 when he came across a similar tax exchange program offered through the Elizabethtown School District. For the next three years, he researched the program and worked with other school board members and administrators to get it passed in January 2007. Reichard is stepping down from the board this November, but said he hopes to see the program continue to grow and be a viable source of school tax relief for senior citizens as well as an ongoing benefit to the school district. There is a lot that senior citizens have to offer to our students, he said. They would be amazed at how they could reach out and touch some of our students.

"Children are our heritage, Rennix concurred, (STEP participants) can impact a child for the future, help them believe in themselves, give them confidence, give them love it s priceless. More STEP, page A6

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