On the evening of December 4 at the Wilder Foundation in St. Paul, the Minnesota Chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) hosted a recognition dinner for Frances Virginia (Lyons) Harris, their 2015 Minnesota volunteer of the year who received the organization’s Andrus Award.
Dinner was served to close to 100 guests. The recognition award and $1,000 check was presented after dessert.
The Andrus Award is named for AARP’s Founder, Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, and is given annually to a Minnesota citizen for great volunteer work that demonstrates a commitment to making their community a better place to live. Dr. Andrus, a retired high school principal, founded AARP in 1958, and before that, in 1947, founded the National Retired Teachers Associations (NRTA).
Dr. Andrus founded AARP with the following core principles:
- To promote independence, dignity and purpose for older persons
- To enhance the quality of life for older persons
- To encourage older people “to serve, not to be served”
Harris, currently 76 years old, is one of those elders in alinement with AARP’s core principals. Since 2012, she has been a volunteer reading tutor with the AARP Foundation’s Experience Corps program (EC). EC is a literacy program that helps struggling students from kindergarten through third grade become better readers.
EC strategically targets students during grades K-3 because statistics show that students who reach the fourth grade who can’t read at that level are four times less likely to graduate from high school. Harris’ role as a reading tutor is to help students practice reading and reinforce the skills that are essential for successful literacy development.
All tutors are 50 years or older and highly trained by the EC program before scheduling time with students. According to Paul Simone, who is the EC program manager, the EC program was founded by former St. Paul mayor Jim Scheibel over 20 years ago.
“The program currently has 90 tutors and helps about 700 students a year,” said Simone. The EC program is nationwide in about 22 different states in lower-income districts, where students need help with State-mandated reading requirements.
Harris is also the executive director of Urban Partnership, a nonprofit organization she founded in 1999 to help seniors at or below the poverty level receive numerous services and programs such as health education classes, free legal help, free tax preparation, and minor home repairs so that seniors can continue to live independently. Included with the AARP recognition dinner was a $1,000 check that is earmarked for the nonprofit of the recipient’s choice. Harris chose as her group the Urban Partnership.
MSR spoke with Harris about her personal commitment to volunteerism and what it meant to receive the Andrus Award. Asked to talk about her very first volunteering experience, Harris said, “I first started volunteering 43 years ago in 1972. It was with Shiloh Baptist Church in St. Paul, when I joined.”
We asked Harris what advice she would offer anyone thinking about volunteering. “If you have a passion to volunteer, you must have a passion for the cause you join. You can’t just volunteer just to be volunteering. Your heart has to be in it.
“It may not turn out the way you want it to,” continued Harris. “Especially if you are doing it to look for an award, you might be disappointed.”
She also shared her thoughts about receiving the Andrus award: “Well, I’m just a little lost for words and overwhelmed. I never looked for anything like this. I just never expected to win anything.”
Harris’ final thoughts: “Every community member should have a desire to give back in some kind of way. It could be serving meals or whatever. Just do something to make the community better.”
For information on becoming a tutor for the AARP Foundation’s Experience Corps Program, contact the Erin Simon, volunteer coordinator, at 612-708-5933.
James L. Stroud, Jr. welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
James L. Stroud, Jr. is a contributing writer and photographer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.