83 and still going strong

MILL CREEK – When she started volunteering at Mill Creek Elementary School, JoAnn Anderson set a goal to continue until her 80th birthday.

“Now, it’s until I’m 85,” she said.

Elizabeth Armstrong / The Herald

JoAnn Anderson spends some time with second-grader Tian Westland, 7, at Mill Creek Elementary School on Friday. Anderson is a longtime volunteer at the school.

Anderson, who turns 84 in April, has volunteered at the school for 14 years. While she has slowed down during that time, her passion for helping students with spelling and math is as vibrant as ever.

“I find it really gives me energy, the days I go to school,” she said.

Volunteering at a school is something Anderson wishes more people her age would do.

“Just to give a couple of hours a week, I think it’d be so great for them – and it’s so great for the schools,” she said.

There certainly is a need, said teacher Donna Lemke, overlooking her classroom of 25 second-graders. “They all have needs, and we just can’t meet them all without helpers. We can never have enough.”

Anderson, who initially spent every day at the school, has slowed her pace, especially since being gone for seven weeks to recover from knee surgery. She now works each Tuesday with students in Lemke’s classroom.

With her long absence, many of this year’s second-graders don’t know Anderson as well, Lemke said. “Other classes, when she would come in, everyone would knock her over practically, giving her hugs. ‘Mrs. Anderson is here!’

“Kids can tell when someone genuinely cares about them.”

Out in the hall, Anderson rests her cane against a table and inclines her head toward a boy she is helping with spelling words. “Your printing is nice,” she says.

She turns over the piece of paper and writes out a few addition and subtraction equations. “Do you like math? That’s good. Math is fun.”

Peyton Kelley, 8, said he liked the time. “It just helps me getting my brain working a little more,” he said. “She’s very nice.”

Anderson has always volunteered in some way, from the PTA when her own two children were in school to her current place on the board of the Women’s Club in Mill Creek.

Widowed for a second time at age 70, she asked herself what she would do with the rest of her life. She thought of her daughter, who struggled to read as a child, and decided to start volunteering at the school.

“I thought it was going to be something where I was helping,” she said. “But honestly, it’s been so much more rewarding.”

The relationship blossomed in other ways as Anderson applied her interest in gardening to the school campus.

“It was so depressing, every morning walking by those weeds,” she said, scanning the school’s central courtyard.

She started planting a few bulbs with students. Soon, her gardening club and students’ class projects took over. Native flowerbeds and colorful murals now mark the area.

In the center of it all is a statue of a young girl reading a book, donated by Anderson. Students and staff have dubbed the girl “JoAnn” in her honor.

“She is just an amazing woman,” said Lemke, who has taught at the school for 17 years. “I wish I had as much energy as she does.”

Anderson said teachers such as Lemke are the real heroes, remembering when she first approached her about helping.

“I never was a teacher. She said that was OK,” Anderson recalled, “just to come with a smile.”

Reporter Melissa Slager: 425-339-3465 or mslager@heraldnet.com.

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