Brandeis Women give kids gifts of memories, literacy

Long after their own days as PTA parents, a group of Jewish seniors is regularly introducing the joys of reading to dozens of youngsters at Oakland's Lakeview School.

For the past three years, a dozen or more volunteers from the East Bay chapter of the Brandeis University National Women's Committee have visited the school to read to students, deliver free books and listen to them read aloud.

They're also pitching in at Oakland Hebrew Day School, baking cookies for Chanukah and other events, and serving last spring as interview subjects about life in old Oakland.

"It's the old story: You get back more than you're giving," said Marilyn Teplow, a 75-year-old Alameda resident who has helped out at both schools. "The kids are darling. They're very affectionate."

The program started in 1997 as a community service project for the local group, which helps support Brandeis University's library system and holds regular study groups. In June, the group's efforts in the schools were recognized at a convention in Boston of the national Brandeis organization.

Doris Weiner, the program's community project coordinator, said she selected Lakeview in part because it was the elementary school she attended, starting in 1935 as a kindergartner. "Something about Lakeview pulls my heartstrings," confessed Weiner, who is 70. Now bordered by Interstate 580, the school has "so many needs," she said.

"It's very satisfying to do something for somebody else," she added. "That in itself is a gift."

Initially, the volunteers followed a literacy program called Rolling Readers in which they visited classrooms weekly, read to youngsters and provided each child with free books. The free books are no longer available, and the Brandeis group now helps Lakeview teachers in a wider variety of ways. Besides reading to and with children in large and small groups, they're assisting teachers with specific projects and even recording books on tape for one classroom.

Starting this year, the seniors also will help out at Oakland Hebrew Day School's middle school, serving as tutors for students whose primary language is Hebrew, and helping to set up the library.

"When I took on this project, I wanted to first meet the needs of our own children," Weiner explained.

Last spring, that involved dispatching eight Brandeis members to the day school so third-graders could interview them about their memories of Oakland.

"They heard about what it was like in the olden days," said Weiner. "What impressed them the most was not that we went across the bay in a ferry before there was a bridge." Instead, it was "that we used to stand on the running board" of cars.

"The notion of having seniors working directly with students and bridging the generations has been a really rich and wonderful experience," said Phyllis Koppelman, assistant director of Oakland Hebrew Day School. "They've just been a wonderful enrichment."

She said the panel of seniors who talked about life in old Oakland last spring brought memorabilia, letters and intriguing stories.

"The children were just fascinated," she said. "There were poignant moments and funny moments."

A few of the volunteers actually have grandchildren at the day school.

In addition, the volunteer work has made for some nice intergenerational connections at both schools.

Around Lakeview, Betty Anne Lipow, a 73-year-old Montclair resident, is affectionately known as "Mrs. Hippo." "I collect hippos," she said.

Her collection numbers about 75 to 100 creatures, ranging from a miniature toy version to a life-sized pygmy hippo that is over 4 feet long and is crafted from fiberglass. "Every time I go, I bring them a hippo to show them," Lipow said. At the end of the year, she brings the pygmy hippo and throws a party, complete with hippo-shaped cookies.

"The kids are very sparkly and fun," added Lipow, who also is active with Temple Sinai's social action committee.

She said she once ran into a student from Lakeview at a local supermarket. The boy called out, "Oh, Mrs. Hippo!" and threw his arms around Lipow, much to the amazement of his puzzled mother.

Because of past problems catching colds and bronchitis, 93-year-old Elise Brock doesn't work in the classroom anymore. But she still helps out at Lakeview by coming regularly to sort and count snack-bar proceeds.

Principal Stan Vukovich "thanks me so much," Brock said. "I guess I'm a person he can trust."