Former Actress, Librarian Celebrates 90th Birthday By Mentoring
June 08, 2010
Gertrude Blanks stands in front of a classroom of second-graders at Fox Elementary School and asks them to join her in a re-enactment of a children's story she created.
"Who would like to be stars?" Blanks asks, while gathering children to play the parts of the earth, sky and stars. The room filled with raised hands and shouts of "Oh, me!"
Blanks is spending her 90th birthday with the students and teachers she inspires every week with her stories and wisdom. Her experience as an actress at Hartford Stage and 25 years of working at Hartford Public Library have combined to make her a master of storytelling.
Today's is just one of many stories that she has told students while mentoring for the Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters Foster Grandparent Program, in which she has been involved for 11 years. The program encourages senior citizens to help students reach their potential.
"We've got to give them more love in the home," said Blanks, noting that children often don't receive enough support from their parents, which can lead to problems in their intellectual and social growth.
Before beginning her program, the tiny woman sat and recalled one incident that occurred while she was teaching. A child walked up to her with a severely cut finger; his parents shooed him away and told him to watch television.
Only by showing more care for children can they succeed, Blanks said.
"She has a passion for education, wants to see them do well and see them grow," said Orelia Barnaby, coordinator for Hartford's Foster Grandparent Program.
Instead of limiting her storytelling to reading from books, Blanks tells stories that are stored in her mind and gives performances to bring them to life.
She links her realization of the importance of education to her mother, who as a child in Maryland was forced to attend school in a barn. Blanks' mother was threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, who burned down the barn down, ending her schooling.
The Nutmeg Foster Grandparent Program has 58 seniors mentoring at schools and day care centers throughout the region. The seniors get a tax-free $2.65 per hour stipend for their work.
"It allows a teacher to teach because a lot of classes are overwhelming with children," said Brian Kelly, director of marketing for Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Those who apply to mentor must be 55 or older, with an income of under $21,660. Couples must have an income under $29,140.
Blanks plans to return to tell her stories during summer school , and when the school year begins in the fall.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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