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Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News
Russell Zimmerman discusses chess with Alta View student Richard McShinsky.

"Checkmate."

The word comes from the small voice of a second-grader sitting across a chessboard from one of his classmates. His legs dangle off the chair and he can barely reach to move the pieces, but the seemingly adult board game has become a favorite recess activity for more than 150 Alta View Elementary students, thanks to a retired volunteer.

Fritz Lenhardt is a former Jordan District teacher who recognized the effect that learning such a complex game could have on young minds and started teaching students how to play and improve their game during their lunch recess twice a week. Often he brings his retired friend and neighbor Russell Zimmerman, and together they teach children game etiquette, strategy and problem-solving skills.

The project started after Lenhardt approached the Sandy school's principal, Catherine Stoneman, about teaching students the skill and art of chess. She readily accepted, and now after a year Lenhardt has 25 chessboards and pieces, tables, chairs, demonstration boards and more than 150 students.

The game helps students to process and develop structured sequences in their minds and learn how to think and strategize problem-solving, said Lenhardt.

"He is just one of those people in the world that you can't believe is for real because he is so genuine, and so anxious to make the world a better place," said Stoneman. "He says 'Well, I am just having fun,' but it is so much more than that — he's a gem."

Though the chess lessons are unusual, Lenhardt and Zimmerman aren't alone in volunteering in schools during their retirement years.

Lane Compton, a retired Brigham Young University professor, has volunteered for nearly eight years and currently donates around 20 hours a week to two elementary schools in Davis District. Among other honors, he is a former Science Educator of the Year and former chairman of the Rocky Mountain Science Council, but to everyone in Stewart Elementary — from teachers to secretaries to students — Compton is known simply as "Grandpa."

He has become an integral part of first-grade teacher Janet Hatch's curriculum. Compton doesn't take the term grandpa lightly — he jokes and laughs with students but expects a lot from them.

Compton said the first grade is a critical time because it's where most children learn to read. He takes students in very small groups or one-on-one to review the day's lesson or just have them read to him. He has two objectives: to help them enjoy it and make them feel they are making progress as bright students.

Teachers have heard him say things like "Wow, look at that! You've got 100 percent, except for three." Because he takes such a positive approach to learning in addition to being in a grandparent/friend position, Compton said students are very open, making it easy to build self-esteem.

But the rewards aren't all on the school's side. Compton, who also volunteers as a crossing guard, enjoys being a part of the school and the community. With hundreds of kids calling him grandpa, its is perhaps not surprising that he recommends volunteering to any retired person who loves grandkids.

Volunteer work in schools is a slow-growing trend. Daphne Williams, volunteer service coordinator for Salt Lake City School District, said school volunteer programs as a whole are a tremendous asset, especially when you translate all the hours into dollars. But senior citizen volunteers bring something different to the table.

"The relationship that a senior can build with a student is very special," said Williams. "Bringing so much love, knowledge and life experiences to students is enriching."

Teachers agree that students tend to have an instant respect for seniors, and they can sense the honesty and true concern that many exemplify. The volunteers also help fill an emotional void for those without grandparents.

Along with Compton, nearly 350 retirees along the Wasatch Front volunteer in schools through the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, which provides orientation and ongoing training for participants. Salt Lake RSVP Director Barbara Drake said last year 76 percent of students referred to volunteers improved one or more grade levels in reading.

"We have good programs, but we could always use more (volunteers)," said Williams. "You can never get too much one-on-one in a classroom."

Those interested in volunteering through the RSVP program can contact Drake at 468-2191.


E-MAIL: terickson@desnews.com