'Grandma' Bertha lends a hand
April 1, 2009 · 4:47 PM
Elementary school teachers often rely on teacher's aides - or instructional assistants as they're called locally - to educate children.
But volunteer Bertha Fitzgerald is a little different.
She's spent nearly 18 years as a volunteer at Juanita Elementary School and helping where she can - for free.
"Grandma Bertha," as she's affectionately known by children in the classroom, helps full-day kindergarten teacher Julie Bebee around the classroom four times a week. Some of duties Fitzgerald, 86, carries out include keeping the children on task with their writing and drawing assignments, files their school work and lesson plans and keeps the teacher supplied with the various materials she needs throughout the day. But beyond that, she simply enjoys her time spent surrounded by the children.
"It's amazing, the amount of learning kids do here," she said. "When they come in, some of them don't quite know their ABC's. Six weeks later, they're printing their names."
Bebee and school officials must have noticed Fitzgerald's remarkable stamina: she's recently had two knee replacement surgeries and arthritic hands, but that hasn't slowed her down one bit.
"She really has a passion for kindergarten," Bebee said. "She's an amazing example to everyone, young and old."
Juanita teachers and students aren't the only ones who have noticed - Gov. Christine Gregoire and the Washington Commission for National and Community Service recently announced they will honor Fitzgerald with the Outstanding Volunteer Service Award April 20 at the Governor's Mansion in Olympia. She will attend the event with her daughter, Charlotte MacDonald.
As her name implies, Grandma Bertha also supplements Bebee's teaching duties with a kind voice of encouragement or an additional smile in recognition of a child's achievements. Passing out a morning snack of cinnamon graham crackers and water on a recent school day, kindergarten student Samantha Macias-Hernandez stood patiently in front of Fitzgerald, waiting for her attention. She held up a tooth-shaped sanitary pendant of a necklace children are given when their teeth become loose at school.
"I lost a tooth," the girl said. It was her second that month.
Years ago, the Benton, Ill.-bred Fitzgerald and her husband moved to Kirkland after he retired from service in the Air Force. He was disabled from radiation exposure in Japan, so Fitzgerald spent a considerable amount of time caring for him. When he passed away in 1991, she sought out the neighborhood's school to see if she could help.
After 18 years at Juanita, Fitzgerald said she's seen many faces come and go and helped students in several different grades. But the student she most remembered was also her greatest challenge, when she wasn't sure she could make a difference.
"His parents were divorcing - it was a difficult time for him," she said. She spent several hours a week over the school year with him, coaxing him to focus on learning again. Eventually, the efforts paid dividends and the boy was back on track. She learned years later that he finished sixth grade at the top of his class.
"That's what gives me joy - to see that I've helped."