HEARTS OF GOLD: 2001 CITIZENS OF THE YEAR - The Explorer: Import

HEARTS OF GOLD: 2001 CITIZENS OF THE YEAR

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Posted: Wednesday, April 3, 2002 12:00 am | Updated: 7:46 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

SHIRLEY LARSEN AND PAT TEAGER

cotton fields that surround Estes Elementary School in rural North Marana from the manicured grounds of the Heritage Highlands Golf and Country Club, but the children and retirees reside in far different worlds.

"When one little girl from Estes came into the lobby of the country club, she looked around with her eyes wide and said 'it's just like a palace,'" recalled Pat Teager, who along with Shirley Larsen, have opened their hearts and their knowledge to the school's students.

Over the last two years, Larsen and Teager have seen their tutoring activities at the school grow to include 12 other volunteers and a golf tournament that raised more than $10,000 for school supplies.

For their selfless devotion to improving the lives of the children at Estes, and for bridging the gap between older adults and children, Larsen and Teager have been selected as among the Northwest EXPLORER's Citizens of the Year for 2001.

Larsen and Teager's work at Estes, where nearly 80 percent of the students receive free or reduced cost meals and many belong to the Marana Unified School District's program that assists migrant farm workers, has made a significant impact on the entire school, said Principal Albert Siqueiros.

"The work that they have done here is just unbelievable," said Siqueiros. "They've worked with the students, brought in more volunteers, and the golf tournament has allowed us to purchase much needed supplies here at the school. They really have gone above and beyond for us."

Larsen was the first of the Heritage Highlands residents to begin tutoring at the school at 13650 N. McDuff Road, paving the way for many who would follow.

"I began about two years ago. I was looking for a chance to volunteer and got interested in working at Estes through the Oasis program. I told somebody what I was doing at the school, and somebody told somebody else, pretty soon we had 14 people," Larsen said.

The Oasis program is a national non-profit organization that matches people 55 or older with tutoring opportunities and other volunteer programs. More than 16,000 people in the Tucson area participate in Oasis's community programs and intergenerational tutoring.

Larsen, who worked as a real estate agent in Virginia and New Jersey after a career as a teacher, moved to Heritage Highlands with her husband Earl four years ago. She spends about a day and half each week tutoring at Estes.

Teager is semi-retired, and in addition to her tutoring at Estes, is a consultant in nursing education that keeps her jetting around the country on a regular basis. She's lived at Heritage Highlands for three years with her husband John. She retired from the presidency of St. Luke's College of Nursing in Kansas.

Heritage Highlands, an "active adult" community at 4949 W. Heritage Club Drive in Marana, is a gold mine of experienced people, many of whom are retired and have time to share the knowledge they've accumulated over the years.

"We have a huge resource of people from different backgrounds here (at Heritage Highlands) and when we ask for help from them it's just amazing the diverse experiences, interests and skills that you find," Larsen said.

"And the energy they bring is unbelievable," added Teager. "This is definitely an active community."

The children are tutored in reading, math and other subjects by the Heritage Highlands residents, who work mostly one on one with the same students. Larsen has followed her pupil Jordan from second grade through fourth grade, and formed a bond that extends beyond academics.

"I like it even more than teaching, where you have responsibility for an entire classroom. One on one is great, you really have an opportunity to form a relationship. The kids look forward to seeing you," Larsen said.

The Heritage Highlands volunteers soon had an idea to extend their service beyond tutoring.

"Pat and I were meeting with Principal Siqueiros and Margaret Goldberg, the reading coordinator, at the very end of the last school year and I just happened to ask if there was anything else we could do to help and Margaret said many of the students were in need of school supplies," Larsen said.

Teager and Larsen calculated that providing the school's most needy students with the basics, such as paper, pencils and paste, would run about $1,500.

"We looked at each other, and I said, 'well, we live at a country club, it has to be a golf benefit,'" Larsen said.

Teager and Larsen rallied the other Estes volunteers and recruited more Heritage Highlands residents to help with setting up the event.

"There were some skeptics who didn't believe we would pull it off in the short amount of time before the next school year began," Teager said. "There was a lot of hard work, but fortunately we had a lot of dedicated people."

They placed an announcement in the Heritage Highlands newsletter seeking help with the tournament, but Teager said most of the volunteers heard about it by word of mouth in the tight-knit community.

In practically no time at all they had 64 other people helping to organize the event, Teager said.

U.S. Homes, the primary builder at Dove Mountain where Heritage Highlands is located, got the financial ball rolling for the event with a sizable donation. The town of Marana, Trico Electric Cooperative, and the law firm of Hochuli and Benavidez also quickly became sponsors.

"This was our first charity tournament, we had no track record. But the sponsors really stepped up," Teager said

When the event was held Aug. 4, artwork created by Estes students decorated tables for the luncheon, and guests were serenaded by teacher Debbie Baker and her kindergarten students.

"The kids were out for summer break, and we later learned that Debbie had a really difficult time getting hold of some of the students for the performance because many of them didn't have telephones," Larsen said. "That really hit home for us living here, where people have three or four phones each."

The performance by the kindergarten students was the highlight of the luncheon. The children, including the wide-eyed girl who believed she was in a palace, were treated to ice cream for their efforts.

The event was a huge success, raising $10,500 and far exceeding the organizers' target of $1,500.

Larsen said a committee of teachers at Estes was formed to figure out how to put the $9,000 windfall to best use.

"We had them put together a wish list, and 28 teachers expressed their needs. It was a prime example of people working together to implement the best use to benefit the most students. Teachers would say, 'well, I can get by okay, this teacher needs it more,'" Teager said. "They wanted hands on material that would be of use to the most children."

In addition to basic school supplies for the Estes students, the extra money went for backpacks, music supplies, a climbing wall and microscopes, Siqueiros said.

"It was a huge boost to the school," he said. "We were very surprised and pleased."

Larsen and Teager are already gearing up for the Second Annual Golf For Kids event scheduled for Aug. 3 at Heritage Highlands.

This year, the money raised will go for school supplies and equipment to augment a batch of new computers the school has received, Larsen said.

"We had a larger agenda when we began," Teager said. "We wanted to raise money for the students, of course, but we also wanted to bring the community together. It's a powerful thing to have the opportunity to spend time with these children."

SADDLEBROOKE COMMUNITY OUTREACH

It began simply six years ago with a gift of shoes. Since then, members of the SaddleBrooke Community Outreach Program, one of the Northwest EXPLORER Citizens of the Year award winners for this year, have formed a mini conglomerate of charitable giving that remains unmatched in the Upper San Pedro River Valley area.

The initial gift was made when a teacher in the Mammoth area noticed only two of three children in a family were showing up regularly for school. It wasn't long before the teacher discovered that the children were taking turns so that one always stayed home because there were only two pairs of shoes in the family.

The gift of shoes to that family led to the formation of what is now a finely tuned group of more than 400 volunteers who provide full wardrobes free each spring and fall to more than 1,200 kids in preschool through the eighth grade in the "tri-communities" of Oracle, San Manuel and Mammoth, as well as Catalina, Dudleyville, Kearny and Winkelman.

The Outreach volunteers do it without a penny of government money, Carolyn Badger, group president, said in a recent interview.

Nearly 30 percent of the group's budget is financed through fund-raisers such as their "I Don't Want It, You Can Buy It" sale being held from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. April 13 in the SaddleBrooke Community parking lot. Last year, the group raised more than $5,000 through this event alone.

Other fund-raising activities include a walkathon, golf tournament, home and garden tour, greeting card sales and an aluminum can recycling effort in which the entire SaddleBrooke Community takes part.

Grants from private foundations, the product of proposals written by Outreach volunteers, comprise another 40 percent and individual donations about 27 percent. Membership dues bring in another 3 percent.

To extend its limited budget as far as possible, group members, former professional buyers for large retailers, travel to Las Vegas twice a year to shop for bargains at clothier trading shows while others sew and knit dresses, hats, gloves and other items of clothing that aren't included in the normal clothing distributions, Badger said.

Ordering wholesale, the volunteer buyers outfit children with winter and spring wardrobes for only $120, or what some parents in affluent communities pay for athletic shoes.

Making the money go as far as possible is especially critical these days because mine shutdowns in the area, such as BHP's 1999 closure in San Manuel, added to family hardships by putting hundreds of area parents out of work or forcing them into minimum wage-paying jobs.

As examples, not long ago one boy during a clothing distribution asked for a pair of shoes three sizes bigger than the ones he wore so his father would have shoes to go to work. Another family told of each day having to wash the few clothes they had in the San Pedro River so there would be something to wear the next day.

While the Outreach volunteers would like to do even more in terms of providing clothing, limited funds restrict them to being able to provide just the necessities and only to those children from families whose income is at the federal poverty level or below, Badger said.

Every child must have a clothing request form obtained through one of the schools in the area or one of the local social service agencies. Armed with the forms, kids arrive at the Kids' Closet, a clothing bank in a classroom set aside by the San Manuel School District, to do their shopping each Monday, Thursday and some Saturdays.

No parents are allowed in the Kids' Closet. The kids do their own shopping and are encouraged to say whether they like an item or not, Badger said.

Every piece of clothing a child gets is brand new and that's what makes the gifts so special, said Sherri Wyland, co-director with her husband Rex of Kids' Closet . "A lot of these kids have never seen clothes with a price tag."

Among the volunteers are computer aficionados responsible for taking inventory four times a year of the quantity and sizes of the clothes on hand so they can keep track of what to buy next year. A complete record is also kept of every child served, what was received and when and what school the child was from.

The SaddleBrooke Community Outreach volunteers do far more than just hand out clothes to needy kids, however.

This year the group will be funding nine scholarships of more than $1,000 each to students headed to community colleges or trade schools. The scholarships will pay for books and tuition for a year and each student will have a mentor to help since there are so many families in the area where no one has ever gone to college, Badger said.

Volunteers also donate to area food banks, respond to social service agencies' calls for clothing, food, medical expenses and other special assistance in crisis situations, provide holiday food baskets to needy families, support a math-tutoring program for San Manuel High School students and sponsor an educational enrichment program that gives more than 100 students a chance to take part in after-school and summer programs.

In a letter last October in the group's newsletter, the Saddle-Brooke Community Outreach Commun-ique, Badger reminded supporters that local needs were not diminished by the tragic events of Sept. 11.

"The economy continues to be unstable, affecting people at all income levels. The need for decent jobs, food on the table and clothing for the family did not go away," she wrote. "Our neighbors in Pinal County and Catalina continue to struggle to make ends meet. Education in Arizona continues to suffer and tutors and teacher aides are needed at all levels.

"When you are ready to help, there is much work to be done."

In SaddleBrooke each day more people are heeding the call.

DIANE WEEKS

Diane Weeks believes kindergartners can do anything. Parents of kindergarten students at Richardson Elemen-tary School, 6901 N. Camino de la Tierra, think Diane Weeks can do anything.

For the last 17 years at the school the kindergarten musical has gone a long way toward proving both statements to be true.

While videotapes of mishaps and gaffes made by confused five-year olds at the annual rite of passage that is the kindergarten school play have been a staple of America's Funniest Home Videos television show for years, Weeks' productions are masterful works of choreography, lighting and sound that highlight the amazing talents of her tiny charges.

To pull off the annual event, Weeks brings together a small army of volunteers to sew costumes, build sets, write scripts and do whatever else may be necessary so that 60 or so beginning students can have their moment in the spotlight.

For her work as an exceptional kindergarten teacher and her tireless efforts bringing together a community to produce the annual musical, Weeks has been recognized by the Northwest EXPLORER as one of its Citizens of the Year.

The annual award recognizes adults in the Northwest communities who have impacted for the better the lives of others.

Weeks has been a teacher for 22 years, though she didn't set out to be a kindergarten teacher for all that time. She wanted to teach second grade.

"I got my first job in a kindergarten and fell in love," she said. "It's the basis. It's the start and I wanted to put my energies into where it all begins."

After teaching for a year in California, Weeks moved to Tucson and taught briefly in the Catalina Foothills School District before switching to the Flowing Wells School District in 1981. She's been at Richardson since 1985.

As a kindergarten teacher, she's charged with setting the stage for a child's educational career by, among other things, teaching: the alphabet, perhaps reading small words; learning to count, maybe even a little simple addition; and citizenship, not talking when the teacher's talking, waiting your turn, sharing, keeping your hands to yourself and so on.

To accomplish those goals, Weeks has made it her mission to make school fun. Her classroom is called Kindercity and she and her husband have built a mini cityscape in it that offers areas to explore and nooks and crannies to crawl in. She seems to entertain more than teach for the two and a half hours each day that she has her students, yet there is no mistaking that they learn.

"They come and they're excited and they're eager and they can do anything," she said.

Weeks dresses up in some silly costume nearly every week, usually to highlight a character in a book she may be reading to them, or as part of the larger school theme for the week or for a holiday.

But she's not the only one acting silly. She encourages it in her students to help build confidence and to bring out each child's unique personality.

Malinda Clelland first met Weeks 10 years ago when her daughter enrolled in Weeks' class.

"My daughter was very shy. (During kindergarten) the change in her was drastic. She's very involved in the Flowing Wells School District now," Clelland said. "My daughter would never do half the things she does if she had not had the type of start she had in kindergarten."

Clelland also said that Weeks helped change her. After having a lot of fun volunteering in Weeks' class while her daughter was in it, she decided to volunteer regularly, even though her daughter had moved on to higher grades.

She eventually became Weeks' teacher's assistant for four years.

"I just really loved the kindergarten program there. Diane Weeks is just the greatest person to work under with the things that you can learn from her," Clelland said. "I used to be a very shy person, couldn't talk in front of people and things like that, and she's brought a little bit out of me. She's really changed my life. She's been a great mentor."

Where shyness is put away and confidence emerges is during the annual musical. The show is tied to the school's yearly theme and is used to reinforce all of the things the young students have been learning during their first school year.

This year's show is called "Return to Oz" and its script, written by Weeks, fellow kindergarten teacher Traci Brown and school librarian Candy Clinkingbeard, centers around the school's theme for this year "Go the Distance. Make a Difference" and teaches the students to persevere and overcome obstacles.

While that sounds simple and basic, the show is anything but.

Weeks' productions have grown over the years, starting out 20 years ago centered around holidays. When she came to Richardson, the productions became westerns and were put on around Rodeo week.

As the productions grew, Weeks relied more and more on the help of parents and volunteers. This year, more than 70 adults, parents, former parents and faculty, will construct the sets, serve as wing directors, change costumes, change sets and perform countless other tasks for the April 11 performance. About another 30 students at the school in various grades, as well as students from the junior high and high school, will also volunteer.

Sam Greenleaf began volunteering 15 years ago when his oldest daughter started in Weeks' class. Greenleaf had purposely moved into the Horizon Hills neighborhood so his daughter could attend Weeks' kindergarten class.

Greenleaf is the building engineer for a large downtown office building and has lent his expertise, and that of his construction crew, to build the centerpiece of each year's sets for the last 15 years.

He has built airplanes, trains, trucks, rockets, and this year, a castle, for the various kindergarten productions.

He spends dozens of hours and cajoles many of his suppliers to donate materials to help offset the costs of constructing the sets.

"I do it because Diane asked me to do it and it's so much fun," Greenleaf said. "I can walk into the high school and the kids will give me a hug and say 'Mr. Greenleaf do you remember when you built this or you built that' and I don't even remember who these kids are. It's my way of giving something back."

Greenleaf's wife and two daughters also volunteer each year, performing various tasks.

Clelland volunteers many hours to the production as well, managing a team of six who oversee the costumes backstage during the production, sometimes changing more than 1,000 pieces of costume in one performance.

Her husband John operates the sound system for the show, which features wireless microphones and other high tech gadgetry to make sure each student is heard.

"Our parents are great. The only reason we've continued to do this is their support," Weeks said.

Weeks' entire family, husband, mother, mother-in-law, and children all pitch in to help with the production. Much of the work preceding the show is a family affair and many of the families volunteering have been doing it for years, long after their children passed through Weeks' class.

Gathering community support and keeping it has been something Weeks had to learn.

"My first set was a cardboard shoe," she said. "But as I learned to work with the community I learned that when you have a lot more people and a lot more talent, there's a lot more you can do.

"Most people want to help schools, they just don't know how. Sometimes all you need to do is ask."

Weeks has become quite good at asking.

Last year's show required a great deal of cardboard to create dozens of sea creatures for an underwater scene. Weeks said she stopped by an autoglass shop near the school one day and asked if there was any cardboard she could have.

"They loaded up my truck with it," she said.

This year the the autoglass shop called her asking if she needed cardboard for this year's show. She did.

The weeks before the Big Show are frenetic and frantic as Weeks and her volunteer army readies everything for the performance.

Yet despite all the work, the reason it's being done is never lost. It's to make the evening memorable for the students performing in it so that they have a joyous memory about school for the rest of their lives.

"Every child has a line. It's very important to me that each child has a special costume and they have their moment in the spot light," Weeks said.

As the shows have gotten bigger and more demanding on the volunteers, the question gets asked from time to time whether it might be too much for the kids. Weeks' scoffs at that. Her faith in her students is resolute.

"There's nothing a kindergartner can't do. The problem is we think because of their size and age, they can't," she said. "It's all in your expectations. They know I know that they're going to do it."

Weeks has been honored as one of the top teachers in her district, in Tucson and in Arizona. Yet it's hard to talk to her about being a kindergarten teacher without spending a great deal of time talking about the musical and how hard it is to pull off each year.

But Weeks sees the show as just one small part of each student's time with her. What she wants her students to remember about kindergarten is "how much I loved them and how much I truly, truly believed in them. I hope they look back on kindergarten as a life memory for them, not just a year they passed in school."

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