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Nonprofit empowers children through ‘Classroom Grandparent’ program

Ashley Morales



Barbara Burnett, a volunteer for Seniors in Service of Tampa Bay, helps second grade students at Bear Creek Elementary with math and reading assignments. Photo: Ashley Morales.

An area nonprofit is leveraging the skills and knowledge of seniors to create intergenerational learning in classrooms.

Seniors in Service of Tampa Bay is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing solutions to community challenges by engaging volunteers aged 55 and older. Since its inception in 1984, the nonprofit has provided more than five million hours of community assistance, much of it coming from its sizable Classroom Grandparent program.

The Classroom Grandparent program puts seniors to work in elementary schools throughout Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties, where volunteers mentor students and help teachers manage the day-to-day work of running their classrooms.

“My background is in social work, so I’ve always been working with people, but my passion is trying to get kids prepared for the next grade and really get them prepared for life,” said Barbara Burnett, a Seniors in Service volunteer who currently helps out in a second grade classroom at Bear Creek Elementary. “I want to see them grow and excel, to be the best they can be.”

“If we are reading or doing something like cutting stuff out, making stuff, she comes around and helps us,” said Arquise Johnson, a second-grader at Bear Creek. “She takes her time out to help us because she wants to help us get into the third grade.”

“She also gets us from P.E. or music, and gives us hand sanitizer,” added classmate Ziya Cooley.

It’s clear the students love working with “Grandma B,” as 81-year-old Burnett is affectionately nicknamed. The St. Petersburg resident spends more than 60 hours each month volunteering, working with children and mentoring students.

Seniors in Service volunteer Barbara Burnett was inducted into the City of St. Petersburg’s ‘Senior Hall of Fame’ in 2023 (pictured with Mayor Ken Welch). Photo provided.

“She adds so much to the lessons, whether it’s social studies, math or reading. She brings her wisdom and her background to help expand the kids’ knowledge of whatever the topic is that we’re teaching about,” said Laurie Herson, a second grade teacher at Bear Creek Elementary. “I consider Grandma B a co-teacher. She keeps the kids grounded and has the same high expectations for them as I do.”

Robin Ingles, President and CEO of Seniors in Service of Tampa Bay, said the nonprofit engages more than 1,500 volunteers across a broad spectrum of community initiatives throughout Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco Counties each year.

Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg Foundation, in partnership with Orlando Health Bayfront Hospital, recently awarded the nonprofit a nearly $250,000 grant to expand its Foster Grandparent Program, which supports mental health and wellness for BIPOC K-5 grade youth struggling at school. Ingles stresses that activating seniors to volunteer not only benefits their communities but also keeps residents feeling purposeful and independent into their older years.

“We’re kind of running out of ‘third places,’ communities outside of work or family. We see the impact when people retire,” Ingles said. “People live so long now, so retirement is going on for decades, and they still have so much to give. It’s a real solution to a lot of our societal problems, to get more elders involved.”

The army of volunteers also receives continuing education from Seniors in Service, including trauma-informed training, classroom teaching strategies and instruction on mentoring neurodivergent children. Not only does the program make a positive impact on the education experience of young learners, but it also bridges the generational gap, creating meaningful connections that nurture learning and self-esteem in the next generation.

“Anyone can go out and get paid to do a job that you hate,” said Burnett. “If you’re doing something you truly love, then you never work a day.”

“I just think it’s really beautiful, molding and shaping the next generation,” said Burnett (second from right) about mentoring children through the Seniors in Service ‘Classroom Grandparent’ program. Photo: Ashley Morales.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

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    S. Rose Smith-Hayes

    March 5, 2024at7:10 pm

    This is needed, especially in families that are survivors of the African Diaspora. Our children need help with Reading and Math. If you can, please help

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