Retired volunteers are critical classroom aides

WHITTIER — The distance between them was just inches. Measured in time, though, it was decades.

Mikhail Melamud sat at a child-size table in a hallway at Whittier International Elementary School. Retired and a volunteer at the school, Melamud watched as Owen Kareken, 6, filled a sheet of paper with numbers printed in neat rows.

“All the numbers have to be the same size,” Melamud said quietly in his Ukrainian accent. He pointed to the shrunken zero clinging to one of Kareken’s 10s.

The kindergartener studied the sheet, then practiced printing a few more numerals. He turned to Melamud when he was done.

“Should I go to reading class, grandpa?” Kareken asked.

Melamud nodded and sent him back into the classroom. He said of the boy: “He’s a very nice guy; very smart.”

Melamud was one of several volunteers placed at Whittier through the Lutheran Social Services Foster Grandparents program. The retired volunteers spend at least 15 hours per week in the classroom, assisting teachers and tutoring students.

Several of Whittier’s foster grandparents spend closer to 20 hours per week in the classroom, making them among the school’s most dedicated volunteers, teachers said.

A small group of Whittier’s foster grandparents share several things in common. They are friends and neighbors who live in an apartment complex close to Downtown, and they are all immigrants from former Soviet republics.

That last fact seems to make them a perfect match for Whittier, a school that uses the International Baccalaureate curriculum and incorporates a global perspective into many classroom activities.

A chain between generations

Kindergarten teacher Angie Olson said a number of volunteers visited her classroom in any given week, but none more than foster grandparent Eduard Vazemiller.

“If he has a doctor’s appointment, he’ll come afterwards,” Olson said. “If his car breaks down, he’ll take the bus. He’s always here.”

Vazemiller said he helped out wherever he was needed, mostly reading with children, but he might also go on field trips or bandage a scraped knee. He came in recently with a caulk gun and fixed a leaky water table used for sensory play in Olson’s classroom.

Vazemiller said he enjoys being around children, especially because he spent little time with his own when they were younger.

“I worked underground,” he explained. “I’m a coal miner.”

For about four decades in his native Kazakhstan, Vazemiller worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. He had five or fewer days off in a year.

That might explain his dedication to Whittier. “All my life I worked hard,” he said. “I can’t sit at home.”

Natalie Vazemiller said her husband’s volunteer experience brought out a side of him she hadn’t seen before.

“He’s a good person, but he had never before communicated with kids,” she said. “And now, it seems like he has found his place.”

As they do some of the other foster grandparents, the children in Olson’s classroom call Eduard Vazemiller “grandpa.”

This grandparent, she said, seemed especially attuned to children’s needs.

“If he notices a child who is sad or having bad behavior or is really shy, he is good with that kind of student,” Olson said.

Natalie Vazemiller began volunteering in another Whitter classroom about two years ago, after her husband already had been at the school for a while. In Kazakhstan, she taught literature and history to middle and high school students.

She said learning goes both ways in the classroom.

“It’s like a chain between generations,” she said. “Old people know a lot of things, but they also don’t know a lot of things.”

Whittier’s student population was 41 percent English-language learners, almost twice the district average.

A first step

One of Whittier’s newest volunteers was David Pruzhnskiy, who joined his friends at the school on a suggestion from Natalie Vazemiller.

Pruzhnskiy was an electrical engineer in the Ukraine. Now, he helps elementary school students with basic addition and subtraction.

“I know it is a big problem, to have skills for children,” he said.

Pruzhnskiy said he’d heard many students in America graduate lacking essential skills in reading and writing.

“I can not understand why that is,” he said.

Many studies have shown students who fall behind early struggle to catch up to their peers. That Pruzhnskiy could understand.

“I think it is important when a child is young to help them with the first step,” he said. “The first step is very important.”