In his early 80s, Don Pennington is technically on his third retirement, but he has little interest in spending his time at leisure.
Pennington has volunteered as a “reading friend” — the title is on the identification tag that hangs on his neck — at Magnolia Woods Elementary School for the past eight years, and was one of five winners of the 2014 Volunteers in Public School’s Golden Apple Awards.
A former basketball player, Pennington towers over the elementary school children he tutors even more than most — “I went to college on a basketball scholarship,” he said — but even the tiniest of kindergartners show no sign of being intimidated by that.
Pennington loves his job, and his students can tell.
Pennington’s first student comes in shyly on May 15, but when she sees the familiar face, greets him and comes over for a hug without hesitation. His warmth and cheerfulness seem to set everyone at ease instantly, like a stretched version of Mr. Rogers, and everyone recognizes him immediately.
The two sit down side by side at a table and he reads “Hop on Pop” by Dr. Seuss while she follows along. The school has to make good use of every inch of available space, so the VIPS tutoring room is a partitioned portion of the school’s gym, where physical education classes are held.
The shared space was a bit of a problem at first, but mostly because in the beginning, there were no partitions, causing a lot of visual distractions, said Hope Dawan, volunteer director for VIPS. Students could see P.E. classes going on, so it was a battle to stay focused.
But Pennington is a problem-solver, and that became one of many projects for the school. They collected some unused standalone wooden bulletin boards, decorated them on one side, and lined them up and down the length of the gym to form the VIPS tutoring room.
He and his wife, Joan, who is the volunteer coordinator at Magnolia Woods and also won a Golden Apple in 2012, have been married for 60 years, and have three children of their own — one natural and two adopted, he said.
“I wish I could have had 20 or 30 kids,” he said, adding that he gets attached to his students, which only makes him more determined to help.
It’s an important job, said Joan, and getting students reading on their grade level makes more difference the earlier it happens. The older a child gets, she said, the harder it becomes to catch up.
For many students, their reading friend is a first exposure to reading for enjoyment only, said Hope Dawan, volunteer director for VIPS.
On this day, the fifth grade is doing a run-through of the graduation ceremony, so “Pomp and Circumstance” plays on repeat. The noise does nothing to distract the pair from the story, however, and the student finishes her session by reading aloud from a sheet of paper Pennington hands her. “Good job,” he says when she finishes.
“See that? Already reading in kindergarten,” Joan Pennington said.
Walk around campus, and it’s hard not to see the fruits of Don Pennington’s labor over the past eight years. He has weeded flower beds, and installed nearly 900 coat and backpack hooks all over the school.
“At one time, they were piled up on these pieces of old furniture outside the classrooms,” Principal Donna Wallette said. “It was an eyesore. He has been an inspiration as a volunteer and as a support for me.”
He jumps in wherever he’s needed, she said — filling in as a refreshment server at open house, as a guide on the first day of school to help parents and students find their teachers. He’s also repaired and assembled countless desks, chairs and other pieces of furniture. It’s the small things, like keeping students occupied and quiet while they wait to be tested for progress reports, or the big things, like overseeing the construction of a tutoring courtyard.
The covered area has a small garden and fountain, and several picnic tables. It makes a huge difference to Wallette, and all the faculty and staff at the school. Having a pleasant aesthetic is important to the students, Pennington said, but his first priority will always be academics, and making sure students have every advantage possible.
Joan Pennington coordinates 70 reading tutors and 13 math tutors. Each plays a vital role in the overall outcomes for students, and they’re always looking for more. “All you need is a good heart and patience, and some time,” Don Pennington said. Volunteers also should be at least 18 years old.
“It’s a wonderful and rewarding thing to do if you don’t want to watch TV and waste your time,” he said.
For more information about VIPS, visit its website at vips.ebrschools.org.