Northeast Joco

These volunteers head back to school

In an era where Johnson County schools are asked to do more with less, one group is helping to make that possible: volunteers.

Parents and grandparents and community members are taking time off work or coming out of retirement to assist in classrooms and after school programs. In the Shawnee Mission School District alone, 295 volunteers worked 7,478 hours in the 2012-13 school year.

So, 913 wanted to share the stories of three of those volunteers. Christi Hutcheson, Larry Blair and Nicia Gdanski all are using their passions to help expand students’ horizons.

They are just three of the hundreds of special volunteers who provide tutoring and mentorship — the glue that helps bind Johnson County schools and the community.

Sitting in a school hallway, 8-year-old Autumn Dock is reading “The Legend of Balto” to literacy volunteer Christi Hutcheson. Christi’s mother, Sue, is at another table with one of Autumn’s classmates, a boy who is telling her about the whodunnit he’s written.

“I’ve always loved to read. I learned to read before I started kindergarten,” says Hutcheson. “I think reading is the number one way to get ahead in the world. I love reading so much. I don’t know what I’d do without it.”

It’s a Wednesday morning in the Second Grade Guided Reading Project Corner at Westview Elementary in Olathe and the students in Amber Schrage’s second-grade classroom are eager to have a chance to go into the hallway and read with the Hutcheson women.

“The kids just thrive,” Schrage says. “They get support and it’s a chance for them to read to somebody different than me or their parents.”

After Autumn finishes reading about a dog’s journey to bring medicine to a snowbound Alaskan town, Hutcheson smiles widely.

“Did you know this story was about something that actually happened? That this was about a real dog?” asks Hutcheson.

“Yes,” says Autumn quietly, her voice barely rising above the table.

“Well, I didn’t. Good for you,” says Hutcheson. “Did you bring another book to read?”

Hutcheson isn’t just prompting the young reader. The literacy volunteer is legally blind. Under the table, her hands are folded neatly around the white cane that she used to navigate the hallways of Westview Elementary, just as she has done for the past three years.

Hutcheson has retinis pigmentosa, a degenerative condition that damages the photoreceptors in the retina and can lead to blindness. For a book lover like Hutcheson, who could read before she went to kindergarten, this seemed liked a particularly unfair diagnosis. By the time she was 18, she could no longer read a printed book.

“That was really hard because reading has always been a passion of mine. It was how I would pass the time on trips,” says Hutcheson.

But in 1994, she discovered the Talking Books program — a joint federal, state and local government program that provides free audiobooks to visually impaired, blind and physically disabled Americans. Then, the books were on cassette tape. Today, they are digital sticks.

“If I’m reading a series, it might be a bit delayed,” says Hutcheson. “But I didn’t have to give up reading.”

Hutcheson, 31, was born in Seattle. Her father was a career Navy man and the family followed his career until settling in Olathe 18 years ago.

Now in her third year of volunteering, Hutcheson is in the process of looking for a job — she wants to work with children in some capacity — and she figured that even if the job market is tight, volunteer opportunities are always available.

“I’m not currently working so I was looking for some way to get involved and I knew that I wanted to volunteer at the elementary level because I have a niece in fourth grade and twin nephews in second grade. I love that they’re starting to read to me,” Hutcheson says.

Hutcheson’s mother had been volunteering at Westview Elementary through the family’s church, and the two women saw this as something they could do for the community together. Sue Hutcheson goes into the classrooms to bring kids out to read to her and Christi.

“I knew I wanted to be a reading buddy,” Christi Hutcheson said. “If kids don’t get a chance to read at home, I can help them focus and listen to see if they’re having trouble with words.”

Christi Hutcheson can see colors under bright light and white walls. She can’t see faces or a picture on the television screen. When she travels, she uses a guide with sight or a white cane to assist her.

On this Wednesday, she’s the guide for 8-year-old Kennedy Stoker, who is mowing through “Why Is The Grass Green?” until she gets to the world “sequoia.”

“If you come across a word you don’t know. I can’t see it, but if you stop and spell it out, we can figure it out. You just have to slow down,” says Hutcheson.

The two sound it out together. They repeat the process for “tombstone” and “Amazon” and “Diwali.”

“You’re on the right track,” says Hutcheson as Kennedy gets flustered in the middle of trying to say “chlorophyll.”

Over a span of 25 minutes, the two talk about fruit bats, birthday parties and the tame squirrel that eats crackers off Kennedy’s grandmother’s front porch. The two laugh at bad puns in the book (What’s the smallest room in the world? A mushroom) and discover they have a mutual love for ice cream cake. When Hutcheson’s hour is up, Kennedy smiles and gets up, but doesn’t immediately walk back to her classroom.

“Thanks for reading. That was fun,” says Hutcheson. “Maybe I’ll see you next week.”

Larry Blair just can’t seem to retire. In 1998, the former band and orchestra teacher was set to step down as principal of Rose Hill Elementary in the Shawnee Mission School District. He thought he might look for a part-time position, something that would let him slow down as he approached 60 years old. Instead, he took a full-time job with the school district in Kansas City, Kan., teaching strings and band. And even that wasn’t his last job.

He spent seven years teaching elementary band in the Olathe school district before retiring in 2008, a full decade after he thought he would stop working. But he still couldn’t stay out of the classroom.

“When I retired, I automatically knew when the first day of school was. I had that feeling of being lost,” says Blair. “What got me started was that I was out at Indian Creek Elementary in Olathe, trying to learn some songs to take to my grandson’s classroom.”

Now 70 years old, Blair volunteers in both the Shawnee Mission and Olathe districts, helping to tutor students, playing guitar or work the soundboard for a musical when needed.

His school districts are especially appreciative of his talent, skill and education background.

In Shawnee Mission, Blair works at various schools with teacher Paul Cornelsen, who loves that Blair can help out on the technical side of music instruction, such as correct fingerings, hand position, and incorrect notes, said district spokeswoman Leigh Anne Neal.

“Mr. Blair is able to provide additional one-on-one or small group assistance to students on some of the technical details in order that Mr. Cornelsen may continue practice and instruction with the larger band,” Neal said. “Mr. Blair’s experience as an educator shines through in the level of comfort he displays with the students who are in turn very comfortable working with him.”

Blair grew up in McPherson, Kan. His father was a trumpet player who would play Friday nights in a band at the town’s American Legion hall. Blair graduated high school with the intention of becoming a band director. The Vietnam War intervened. He was drafted and played trumpet in an army band at Fort Riley for three years. As part of his duties, he played the bugle at 100 funerals, including President Dwight Eisenhower’s in Abilene, Kan., over a three-state area.

“We’ll get other grandpas on Veterans Day to come in and talk to the classrooms. I’ll play all of the military songs for each of the branches on my bugle,” says Blair.

After the war ended, his army band was playing in the Old Shawnee Days parade moments before he was slated to interview at Hocker Grove Middle School.

“I finished playing in the parade and then just walked straight into the interview in my uniform,” says Blair. “I’m sure it was the strangest interview they ever had.”

He got the job and took off his uniform. His 30-year career as a teacher and administrator led him to walk the halls at Hickory Grove Elementary School (now Horizons High School), Bonjour Elementary, South Park Elementary, Indian Hills Middle School and Rosehill Elementary.

“I’ve always been thrilled by kids making progress,” says Blair. “Knowing you’re helping a child do something they really want to do. That’s a pretty good reason to be around.”

Blair still has an active teaching certificate, which has helped him tutor middle school students one-on-one who have never picked up an instrument and even take what he calls his “Grandpa Blair,” act on the road. The act is his guitar and a collection of childhood classics: “Down By the Bay,” and “The More We Get Together,” being the top requests.

“I try to teach them about how to follow instructions and reinforce what they’re learning in the classroom,” Blair says. “I like working with younger kids because I never had the opportunity to do that as a teacher.”

In the beginning of the school year, he volunteers two to three hours a week, but that number is closer to 10 by the time Thanksgiving arrives. From November to April, he volunteers at Indian Creek Elementary in Olathe, helping to put on the kindergarten musical. In March, he works to prepare the students at Pioneer Trail Junior High for an annual spring music festival.

“I feel really strongly that arts are offered in the elementary schools. A lot of kids can’t afford private lessons. I’m grateful that the schools give me an opportunity to provide them with education they probably couldn’t get any other way,” says Blair.

Each August for the past three years at Rhein Benninghoven Elementary in Shawnee Mission, Blair has been working as an instrument handler in the “musical petting zoo,” for fifth-graders. While he has no plans to stop playing any time soon, it’s a safe bet to assume he’ll be there for at least two more years.

“My grandson’s in third grade,” says Blair. “I’m really looking forward to it.”

Nicia Gdanksi put her hands on her knees and got down to the level of the 7-year-old girl who was eager to show her a bee lazily tumbling along one of the 30 trails outside the Blue Valley School District’s Wilderness Science Center.

“Without bees, we don’t have food,” says Gdanski, a Johnson County master gardener who volunteers weekly at the center. “And if we can teach kids about their environment without browbeating them, it’s a lot more likely to stick.”

The junior bee enthusiast is one of approximately 7,000 kids who will visit the center, which sits just east of the Blue Valley Middle School in Overland Park, in a calendar year. The students range in age from 5 to 11 years old. Kids in the district can also attend an environmentalist camp over the summer.

“Nicia has gone above and beyond,” says District Coordinating Teacher Gavin Spake. “She’s not just volunteered with the garden. She’s worked with classes and filled in when there haven’t been parent volunteers.”

Gdanski grew up with plants in her bedroom alongside dolls. And when she needed to feel at home — Gdanski’s husband, Greg, was a Marine stationed from Okinawa, Japan, to Virginia — her garden was the one constant to keep her grounded.

“My first stop in a new place was always the garden center,” says Gdanski. “I remember when we had to ration water in Okinawa that I would water my plants from our dehumidifier.”

While her flowers kept her grounded, Gdanski volunteered with parent teacher organizations and the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, which helped fund the cost of well baby check-ups and visiting nurses to new mothers on military bases overseas.

“Volunteering was a way to give back wherever we were stationed. It helped me know the area and my children’s school,” says Gdanski.

When her husband retired from the Marine Corps, the family moved to Lenexa, where her sons Scott and James attended Shawnee Mission Northwest. Over the last decade, she’s spent hundreds of hours helping at after proms and book fairs and Cub Scouts. But with both her boys headed to college, she decided to marry her passion and commitment to service.

She began training as a master gardener in 2010. The course requires 30 hours of instruction and 30 hours of volunteer work in the following year. By 2011, Gdanski was a master gardener who was drawn to the rain gardens and native plants at the Wilderness Science Center.

“I really feel like this has an impact on the kids and parents on field trips. We’re right in the middle of this neighborhood where the paths are used on the nights and weekends,” says Gdanski, who is one of 133 volunteers in the Blue Valley district.

She estimates that she gives about 150 hours of her time in a given year. In addition to spending one day a week at the science center, she leads a monthly junior master gardener group at Santa Fe Elementary and mans the Johnson County master gardeners’ hotline. Would-be horticulturists call up with questions about everything from frost affecting maple syrup production to what is a weed and what is a plant in their garden.

The Wilderness Science Center has a pair of rain gardens filled with plants native to Kansas. The plants are not treated with chemicals; the gardeners worry about runoff into the adjacent wetlands. On her weekly volunteer sessions, Gdanski checks water levels and the health of the pitcher sage, purple milkweed and junipers.

“I love it. I could be in Disney World and I still wouldn’t stop looking at the plants,” says Gdanski.

The lesson plans for the students, designed by Spake, change with the seasons. And this fall, the kids were learning about decomposition and composting. As the class field trip divided into groups one morning, Spake discovered that Gdanski wanted to see the students grow alongside the goldenrods and meadow sage.

“There weren’t enough parents to run a group and Nicia says ‘I’ll do it.’ That speaks to the kind of person she is. She’s so supportive and she was willing to work with a child one-on-one to give her that positive experience,” Spake says.

During their walk in the gardens, it was then that the girl stopped to point out that she noticed the difference between the bees they were seeing. Gdanski told her there were 1,500 native species of bees and the value of cross-pollination.

“Little girls have so many opportunities today,” says Gdanski. “They just have to follow their heart and their interests.”

Just like the little girl who had plants in her childhood bedroom.