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Happy birthday, Grandma Simon

At age 90, Clara Simon has raised five children. She has 14 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

And now, she's known as Grandma to four classes of kindergarteners.

Simon's birthday is technically this week, but she celebrated with the kids of Renee Schultz's morning kindergarten last Friday. And it was a fun day for all.

Simon volunteers with the morning kindergarten classes five days a week. She started this year, after some gentle nudging from a nephew, who told her he found while working in schools that younger children showed adults a tremendous amount of respect.

"And I thought that sounded like something good," Simon said.

Not long ago, one of Simon's great-granddaughters was in Schultz's kindergarten class. Every day, Simon walked her great-granddaughter to school. Schultz, in turn, invited Simon to volunteer -- several times, in fact -- but it was not until the end of last school year Simon finally came to Schultz and said she would.

Schultz figured she would get the school year started, then call Simon a few days into the school year to see if she was still interested. She fully expected Simon to have changed her mind.

"But then, at 10 minutes to 9 a.m. on the first day of school, in walked Clara, and she's been here ever since," Schultz said.

Educating youth

Simon has a granddaughter who teaches first grade. One of her sisters was a elementary teacher, another sister a high school teacher. Simon, who grew up and spent most of her married life in Iowa, worked for the accounting department at the Sioux City, Iowa school district.

She raised her own kids, and was an aunt, grandmother and great-grandmother. But a teacher? That's something she had never done before. So now, working with children for 2 1/2 hours, five days a week, Simon finds her new career pretty exciting.

"Being with the children, I'm amazed at how much they absorb every day," she said. "When you're so close to it (as a parent), you don't realize that the learning is going on."

Simon works with four classrooms of students. She helps them with number recognition and early math skills. They talk about shapes and colors. And when the kids ran laps around the school gymnasium a couple of weeks back, Simon was running right along side of them, much to the amazement of the kindergarten teachers.

But her biggest job is helping the kids learn early reading skills. Grandma moves from classroom to classroom, every day spending at least 45 minutes to help each student in the classroom read through an early-reader book.

"And the kids, they love her," Schultz said. "If she doesn't get to every student, they'll come back and say, 'Grandma didn't work with me today.' She's just been such a huge help to all of us."


Yes, they call her Grandma. When one class greeted her in the hallway Friday morning to sing her a special birthday song, it was not for "Mrs. Simon" or "Clara," it was for "Grandma." And when she opened a present from the teaching staff, her very own Tigers sweatshirt was embroidered with the name "Volunteer Grandma."

Most students have grandparents, Schultz said, though not all live close, and certainly, most are not nearly as long-lived as Simon. Several high school students come into the classrooms as mentors, and lots of parents come to volunteer at different times. But Simon's presence gives children something completely different.

"They do see her as an older person that cares for them. She's just giving them that special one-on-one time they might not otherwise get," Schultz said.

Grandma's party had been planned for a couple of weeks, and the kids did a pretty good job of not tipping her off. At least until the day before. One youngster said something about a birthday to Simon, and she asked, "Oh, is it your birthday, too?" And the cat was out of the bag.

"The other one says, 'Shhh, you're not supposed to say anything,'" Simon said with a smile. "That's when I knew something was going on."