By Rita Beamish
The third grader had never heard of Beethoven until he came upon a dog of the same name in the book he was reading with Miss Vigi. He was unaware of classical music—at least before Miss Vigi belted out the dramatic four notes from the iconic start of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: “DaDaDa DAAH!”
She looked at the boy and saw the lightbulb flash on. “Oh, I know that!” the boy said—and affirmed yet another teaching moment for Vigi Molfino, an AARP Foundation Experience Corps  volunteer.
The woman known as Miss Vigi to the kids at Sankofa Academy in Oakland is among 217 older adults who this past year tutored 3,400 children at 22 public schools in the San Francisco Bay Area as part of Experience Corps. They assist students, one-on-one or in small groups, who need extra attention to attain grade-level reading skills—and occasionally advanced readers who could use an extra challenge.
The goal of Experience Corps nationwide is to ensure children read at grade level by the end of the third grade, when there’s a shift from learning how to read to using reading as a tool of learning.
Results support the volunteers’ involvement. Forty-five percent of Bay Area students with consistent Experience Corps tutoring improved their reading skills during the 2013-14 school year, and 1 in 3 jumped to grade level by the end of the year, said Paul Olsen, Experience Corps Bay Area director.
Molfino, 70, who previously worked in the nonprofit world and also as a cookbook buyer for a large bookstore, said the teaching invariably extends beyond reading skills.
“You can share your own life experiences,” she said. “Most people don’t realize they can be teachers. A lot of the messages you give the children give them a new way to think about things. It’s opening a new world for them.”
Projecting a dynamic presence into the classroom every Tuesday and Thursday, Molfino brings the kids healthy snacks of pineapple, mandarin oranges and jicama with chile-lime salt, incorporating fun and nutrition education as she can.
“It’s been fabulous to have her,” said Marisa Mills, a young teacher who has built a collaborative relationship with Molfino, praising her high expectations and the “no-nonsense” approach she mixes with insight and compassion—sometimes telling a child, “I see you are having a tough day.”
Taking the time to listen
“Students are starved for that attention,” Mills said, noting that they clamor to study with Molfino. “They feel so individually seen by her. When there are so many students with high needs, they don’t feel seen. Having this person take the time to hear them when they want to be heard is powerful for them.
“As a new teacher … it’s great to have someone who knows them as I know them and to be able to throw ideas back and forth. I value her insights,” Mills said.
In the past two years, Experience Corps Bay Area has added seven schools in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley. A separate Experience Corps unit serves Marin County schools.
Tutors come from different backgrounds, and many have no teaching experience. They receive nine hours of initial training and have workshops through the year. They average about five to eight hours a week in the classroom. Some receive modest stipends.
The volunteers enjoy a sense of fulfillment and involvement. Teachers and principals emphasize their consistency and compassion for students who often have disruptive home lives and are from economically distressed neighborhoods.
“It’s the kind of intervention that schools seldom have funding for,” said Mel Stenger, who as principal of Washington Elementary School in Berkeley welcomed 16 Experience Corps volunteers last fall.
“It’s not just teaching how to pronounce words. It’s the wisdom that older people bring to the lives of children,” he said.
Experience Corps “is an organization that is changing lives,” Olsen said, “with an impact beyond just nine months in a classroom with a child. The impact you can have on a child is lifelong. The impact on society is huge.”
To volunteer with Experience Corps Bay Area, call 415-759-4223 or email firstname.lastname@example.org .
Rita Beamish is a writer living in San Mateo, Calif.