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Wisdom-Sharing Falls to Fiscal Ax

A program that sends senior citizens into schools to impart knowledge is hurt by the state's budget crisis.

March 22, 2004|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

Bernd Simon is on the run again, racing from school to school to testify to the horrors of war and evils of the Nazi empire.

Just last week, the 83-year-old Holocaust survivor swept into a classroom at Somis School north of Camarillo to recount his terrifying train ride to a Nazi concentration camp. Days later, he escorted Thousand Oaks-area high school students to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles to supplement their studies with his own front-line view.

There is an urgency to his actions, a drive to educate as many youngsters as possible about the Holocaust as the pool of survivors shrinks each year and time silences the voices Hitler could not.

"Don't let anyone tell you that the Holocaust didn't happen, because it did -- I was there," the Ventura resident told youngsters at Somis School. "You are the future of America. My message to you is listen to the news, take an interest in politics and become involved in what's happening around you."

It's a message at risk of being intercepted, however, as state budget cuts threaten to end school programs that send senior citizens into classrooms to share their experiences and expertise with younger generations.

For more than two decades, the California Department of Education has provided money for such programs, producing a ready army of senior volunteers to mentor youngsters and provide one-on-one tutoring for those struggling to keep pace with their coursework. In many cases, the seniors also have served as human history texts, breathing life into world-shaping events that most students only read about in books.

Statewide, those efforts cost $171,000 a year, money used to coordinate about 1,600 volunteers who work with more than 35,000 students in dozens of school districts.

But the money dried up last summer amid cuts to public education, causing many of the programs to close and others to scramble to stay afloat.

The cutbacks spelled the end of state-funded senior mentors in Claremont, Sacramento and Berkeley. Other programs in Ventura County -- where Simon participates -- and San Jose are limping along this school year, and coordinators worry that the programs could be on their last legs.

"It wasn't a lot of money but it was good money," said Arnold Bloom, who oversaw a defunct senior volunteer program in the Claremont Unified School District.

For more than 20 years, the program put about 30 seniors to work throughout the 6,500-student district in eastern Los Angeles County. The volunteers worked primarily with physically disabled children, running Scout troops, overseeing library services and helping teachers in the classroom.

"We had some really neat things going on," Bloom said. "I think the program helped the seniors as much as it helped the kids."

In San Jose, program coordinator Kay Banchero was able to patch together enough money to keep senior mentors in place on a limited basis this school year. But she said that unless other funding is found, the program probably won't survive.

"It's a real tragedy," Banchero said. "The last four years alone, we served close to 300 students. Those relationships are so valuable, you really can't put a price on them."

So valuable, in fact, that officials with the Los Angeles Unified School District have managed to keep their senior volunteer program running despite the state cuts. A private, nonprofit foundation raises about $400,000 a year for volunteer services in the nation's second-largest school system.

When state funding ran out at the end of last fiscal year for the district's network of more than 1,000 senior citizen mentors, foundation dollars were used to keep the program going. But it hasn't been easy.

"The heart is still there; we are just trying to keep the arteries open," said Joan Suter, president of the fundraising group. "For some reason, the senior citizen volunteers have the patience, the interest and the enthusiasm to help children achieve. I just feel it's the ingredient a lot of these children need."

For more than two decades, educators have used that ingredient to feed students' appetite for knowledge in Ventura County, where a senior citizens speakers' bureau has served about 10,000 youngsters a year.

The program started informally at the Camarillo retirement community of Leisure Village, where senior citizens would play host to high school groups to discuss educational issues. The effort was formalized in 1983 with the first year of state funding, and now about 60 speakers take part, providing presentations on everything from art and music to genealogy and scientific exploration.

All of the talks are provided at no charge and conform to state curriculum standards.

But the loss last year of a $17,000 state grant has curbed the classroom visits, and there's no guarantee that the program will continue next school year.

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