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A Close- Up Look At People Who Matter : Kindergartners Respond to Her Caring Ways


As she had every week for 17 years, Ida Mesner showed up at the kindergarten for Erwin Street Elementary in Van Nuys last week, and out of habit started picking up papers.

That made Tobi Rosen, the kindergarten teacher, nervous.

If Mesner had found the stacks of papers with her name on them--programs declaring it "Grandma Ida Day"--a surprise three months in the making would have been ruined.

But Rosen was able to distract Mesner long enough so that not until she was taken out to the playground, where the entire 1,000-member student body and her family and friends had assembled, did the North Hollywood grandmother guess what was about to happen.

Tears welled up in her eyes. "I was completely surprised," said Mesner, after listening to half an hour of proclamations and letters from President Clinton, Gov. Pete Wilson, the mayor and other officials. "I was really overwhelmed."

Rosen, an Erwin teacher for 26 years, wanted to honor Mesner on her 84th birthday for her years of helping students, cleaning up around the room, planning art projects and dealing with spilled paint. She wanted to make sure that Mesner was honored because an earlier volunteer, known as "Poppa Sam," had never been recognized.

"When schools have people like this, it's a gift," said Jill Fager, principal at Erwin when Mesner started as a volunteer after retiring as a secretary in the construction industry. Now principal at Coldwater Canyon Avenue Elementary, Fager returned for last week's celebration.

"It's one of the things that are our glue. Older kids will tell their younger brothers and sisters about to start school, 'Don't worry. Grandma Ida will be there for you.' "

Students remember Mesner long after kindergarten and often stop by to visit her.

"When I go across the campus, I hear them calling out, 'Hello, Grandma Ida,' " Mesner said.

At the ceremony last week, several gave her gifts and hugs.

"Grandma Ida, you're the best," said kindergartner Valerie Fresh, whose mother is Rosen's aide. "If you ever left school, I would cry."

Among those in the crowd was Michael Stern, now 35, who lives in Van Nuys and works for Audiences Unlimited. Stern knew Mesner only when he was a teenage volunteer at the school, but was still impressed with her ease at handling any kind of kindergarten crisis. She taught him that there was no sense in getting upset over small accidents and spilled paint, he said.

"She has more energy than any 20-year-old," Stern said. "She was the grandmother I didn't have."

Mesner's energy to volunteer comes from the children, Rosen said. "They just give it back to her."

She first volunteered when one of her grandsons was in Rosen's class. But then she kept working year after year.

"I didn't know how to say no," Mesner said. But she added that another reason she participates in the Dedicated Older Volunteers in Educational Services program of the Los Angeles Unified School District is "the constant satisfaction in seeing children mature."

"You certainly gave me a wonderful birthday," she said after the party.

In her honor, the school also planted a tree near the kindergarten. School officials said that a plaque will be placed near the tree, reading, "Grandma Ida's tree will always grow with children's love."

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