Sometimes you just know when you’ve found your calling.
Mary Lou Kramli doesn’t hide how much she loved being a teacher, an occupation that she felt drawn to even before graduating from Georgian Court College in 1963.
When she retired from Ewing High School in 2000 after 25 years of teaching, the 40-year Ewing Township resident ran for—and was elected to—the Board of Education the very next year, where she served for two terms. Not content to stray far from the job she adored, Kramli proposed an idea she’d first encountered at an educational conference, which would be the genesis of Lore Elementary School’s STARS program, now in its 10th year.
Initially a pilot program to which then-principal Patricia Womelsdorf took an instant shine, STARS (Seniors Teaching and Reinforcing Skills) is designed to unite the elementary school and its community by bringing senior citizens on as supplemental instructors and support so they can use their talents, interests and life skills to enrich and encourage young students.
It currently boasts 15 volunteers who fill various voids as extra pairs of hands throughout Lore: The volunteers, who Kramli calls her “Stars,” work one-on-one with students. They serve almost in a teacher’s aide capacity for specials such as music and lend their expertise to offer some extra assistance in the media center.
“There are programs like this all over the country,” Kramli says. “I was very interested because, as a teacher, I know how important it is for the community to become acquainted with the schools.”
Indeed, she describes the primary benefit of STARS as being twofold. On one hand, children thrive under the extra attention and support, and on the other, the seniors take their firsthand experience with students to act as ambassadors to the community on behalf of the school—all for the ultimate goal of strengthening ties between Lore Elementary and Ewing.
“It brings the community into the school in a really special way,” says Kramli. “Our Stars come into the school and see what’s going on, and they bring that news to others in the community who don’t always get to see it for themselves.”
This is not the first time Kramli has found her way back to the educational world. Two years into her teaching career, she became pregnant with her first child, and she spent the next 12 years at home with her three children before resuming her role as a Ewing High School teacher in 1977. To her, even with limited career options for women in the early 1960s, teaching was a pursuit that came quite naturally.
“When I was in college, there weren’t that many choices for us. We were all going to be teachers,” she says. “But I always saw myself getting involved with children. The first year I taught, I knew that I had chosen the right path. I loved teaching. I loved the kids. I just knew I was in the right place—I can’t explain it.”
It is Kramli’s dream to see the STARS program continue to grow and thrive into its next decade.
That passion translates noticeably well for STARS, as Kramli both advocated and sought volunteers for the program as soon as she was given the green light. She immediately took to local senior-citizen groups to generate interest and bolster the STARS roster with individuals who had the time and dedication to help make the nascent pursuit a success.
In addition to her own involvement as STARS’ supplementary Spanish teacher, Kramli has amassed a stable of volunteers whose prevailing commonality is simply a desire to donate their time and knowledge to the youngest generation.
In addition to Kramli, a number of the volunteers are retired teachers, including Felicia Alexander, who taught in the Trenton school district; Janet Barudin and Priscilla Yaeger, who both recently retired from Lore; and Tracey Burhop, an Alabama native and former pre-school teacher.
Ray Daikeler brings his therapy dog, Bandit, to school, and the kids read to him. Kramli said that the childrens’ reading skills have shown improvement as a result of this program. Sharon Daikeler, Ray’s wife, an accomplished actress who has appeared in Philadelphia theaters, works with children in the school’s music program.
Joan Keefe, a retired Lore support staff worker, works four days a week with students in math and reading, and Linda Solinski, who worked in the corporate world, assists in the special education area two days per week.
Helping out in the school’s media center are Janice Rockmore, a retired librarian, and Nancy Van Saun, the longest serving STAR volunteer. All but one of the volunteers (Yaeger) are residents of Ewing.
“They are the most giving people I know, they are the most generous people with their time,” Kramli says, adding that each of her Stars has to undergo a fingerprinted background check in order to be cleared for involvement.
Past STARS volunteers include Joan Mahon, Blanche Farber, Marge Klim, Joan Rogers, Mary Albert, Lucille Barclay, Beverly Brown, Janet Patterson and Wes Womelsdorf.
“I love the kids and enjoy working with them,” says Keefe, who initially learned of STARS when Kramli spoke at her seniors group. “You don’t think you help as much as you do, but it’s incredible: I work with a special-needs boy who might be having a bad day but by the end of our session, he’s warmed right up to me. It’s incredible.”
Kramli feels that the organic warmth nurtured between the Stars and their young pupils is a fortunate by product of helping bridge the multi-generational gap for a solid decade.
“They just establish this bond that, for many of the students, may be the grandparent figure they don’t have,” she says. “At the end of each year, the faculty and the principal get all of us from STARS together for an appreciation afternoon. Without a doubt, the Stars always end up with heartfelt cards and comments from their students. The bond that they are able to forge is amazing because our seniors give their kids non-judgmental, positive reinforcement all the time.”
‘What keeps me involved is knowing that there are children every year at Lore who are getting help they ordinarily would not get.’
As Lore Elementary’s faculty has been nothing but receptive to the STARS program, it is Kramli’s dream to see it continue to grow and thrive into its next decade, as there are plenty of areas both she and the school have identified as needing additional support.
“The Lore faculty is so welcoming to these volunteers and, because our seniors have worked with the teachers for quite a while, they have such a good rapport. They just know what has to be done,” she says. “But we could use so many more Stars because I have so many places where people are needed. It would be wonderful to get a computer person and our phys ed teacher is dying for someone to help—they wouldn’t even have to do push-ups!”
As the program has seen some of its original Stars “age out” or no longer be able to commit to the program, Kramli always welcomes new volunteers—as long as they have the requisite desire to make an academic, creative, and emotional difference in a young student’s life.
“It’s more than worth the time you put into it,” Keefe says. “It’s an incredible program that has proven to be a great experience.”
“What keeps me involved is knowing that there are children every year at Lore who are getting help they ordinarily would not get,” adds Kramli. “It is so important for these children to see that you care! If you are somebody who wants to inspire a young child, who really wants to make a difference in a young child’s life, then this is the volunteer position for you. That child will never forget that you said down with him or her to share your time and talent.”
Anyone interested in volunteering in the STARS program can contact the Lore School main office at (609) 538-9800, ext. 6101, or email principal Edward Chmiel at firstname.lastname@example.org.