Alene Yoder pulled an aging, but well-loved version of Eugene Field’s “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat” out of her bag during a recent visit to Hanford Dole Elementary School.
The book had the perfect mix of words to make third-grader Kaleb Ford and second-grader Shemiel Imes feel challenged, but not overwhelmed.
The two sat with Yoder one-on-one, as they do each Thursday, reading the book.
“We’ll go over the hard words first and then we’ll read it together,” she said.
When Shemiel stumbled on word she couldn’t quite make out, Yoder guided her through sounding it out.
Yoder threw her right hand in the air, offering up a high five after Shemiel completed the book.
“Wow, you did so good,” Yoder said.
Yoder, a tutor through Communities in Schools of Rowan County, has shown up to the school faithfully every Thursday this year to work with Kaleb from 8 to 8:30 a.m. and Shemiel from 8:30 to 9 a.m.
“I’ve got the sweetest kids in the whole world,” she said. “With all the government mandates now, teachers can’t spend a lot of extra time with each child individually. That’s where the mentors come in.”
Yoder is one of 26 Communities in Schools mentors who spends time working with students at Hanford Dole
“The CIS program has been so successful here, working to get students to stay in school,” she said.
Yoder has taught music most of her life. She started out at a Maryland elementary school in 1954 before teaching high school in New Jersey.
Later, she taught college courses in North Carolina and Florida, including music history at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
Yoder lived in Salisbury from 1978 to 1996, running a music house and conservatory with her husband, Jimmy.
The couple moved to Florida after retiring in 1996, but Yoder continued to be involved in the music scene, serving as the music director at their church.
She continued working at the church after Jimmy died in 2009, but when her arthritis flared up toward the end of 2011, she decided it was time to retire for good and move back to Salisbury, where her daughter and three grandchildren live.
“When I came back here, I got bored,” she said. “I had been working all my life and all of a sudden I had nothing to do, so I thought maybe I could help somewhere.”
Yoder, 80, heard about Communities in Schools from Ron Turbyfill, chairman of the organization’s board of directors.
“He said ‘You need to see about volunteering,’ and I’m so glad I did because it’s fun,” she said. “What else are you going to do when you retire, twiddle your thumbs? I wanted to feel useful.”
Fran Simpson, the Communities in Schools site coordinator at Hanford Dole, said Yoder usually brings a “bag of tricks” with her each week. It holds everything from books to markers to flashcards.
“She always has something special in there for them,” Simpson said.
Simpson said Yoder’s nurturing persona makes the children feel comfortable.
“She’s very positive and encouraging, which is definitely something our students need to hear,” she said. “If they make a mistake, they know she will help them through it.”
Most of the time, Yoder reads with Kaleb and Shemiel.
“If they struggle with a sentence, we’ll read it three, four and five times,” she said. “I want them to get the meaning out of what they’re reading.”
Yoder said reading is a critical skill that every child needs to master early on.
“You can’t be good at anything unless you’re a good reader,” she said. “All of the other subjects depend upon your ability to read.”
By helping students strengthen their reading skills, Yoder said she hopes they’ll develop a love for it.
“If they love reading they have a better chance,” she said.
Yoder does more than tutor Kaleb and Shemiel, she’s gives the two praise, friendship and a warm hug before sending them back to class.
“If they just know they’re loved, that’s the most important thing,” she said.
Yoder spread that love to about 30 other students when her hat circle at First Baptist Church created handmade toboggans for them.
“She was so tickled to bring them in for our students,” Simpson said.
The group also made 40 toboggans for students at North Rowan Elementary.
“I just love doing God’s work in the smallest way I possibly can,” Yoder said. “I feel like if you can help one person in your life then your life was worthwhile.”
Yoder almost had to stop tutoring at Hanford Dole when her arthritis started to get worse.
“My feet were bothering me so bad,” she said. “I could hardly walk down the hall to pick up my students.”
Now the students meet Yoder in the office and they go across the hall to a reserved room.
“We are glad we could work something out. She would’ve been very hard to replace,” Simpson said.
Yoder said she hopes sharing her experience will encourage others to volunteer as mentors or tutors. “It’s an hour a week for heaven’s sake,” she said. “All you have to do is sit there and help that child read.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.