Diane Brenno, stationed at her crafts table outside a Chautauqua Elementary School classroom, wields her glue gun as Niccolo and Teodoro Kuzma and Logan Brenno work on their creations (Elizabeth Shepherd Photo).

Diane Brenno, stationed at her crafts table outside a Chautauqua Elementary School classroom, wields her glue gun as Niccolo and Teodoro Kuzma and Logan Brenno work on their creations (Elizabeth Shepherd Photo).

Island elder leads charge for more volunteers at school

“You’re supposed to give and contribute to your community until the day you’re in a box.”

Diane Brenno, a woman known simply as “Grammy” to generations of children, is on a mission to get seniors off their couches and into the schools to help children learn to love to read.

“A good book can change your life,” said Brenno, an 83-year-old islander who has worked and volunteered at Chautauqua Elementary School for many years.

Currently, she presides over a crafts table outside of a classroom at the school, helping special needs students and others make whimsical creations out of baubles including googly eyes, paper tubes, beads and pipe cleaners she totes into the school, along with her trusty glue gun.

The kids are there for human interaction and a break from the stress of their classroom, according to Brenno.

“These kids are fine with me because they feel safe and I make no demands,” she said. “You’ve got to give them the ability to trust others — that’s a nurturing thing.”

But in recent months, Brenno has also been making more of an effort to get her contemporaries — those who are retired or may have downsized after taking care of large homes — to join her in helping out at the school.

“I want to get them off their butts and stop watching ‘Jeopardy’ and MSNBC and Fox News, and make a difference,” she said. “You’re supposed to be a good citizen and give and contribute to your community until the day you’re in a box.”

After introducing herself to Jon Hodgson, Chautauqua’s new assistant principal, Brenno learned that Chautauqua is currently recruiting a team of volunteers to help out with the school’s reading intervention program — and she’s eagerly spreading the word about the opportunity.

Hodgson said he is grateful for her help.

“We’re always looking to expand our support for students and it is exciting to partner with such an influential member of the island community,” he said.

An information session and training for the new volunteers will take place on Dec. 5, at the school, and volunteers will start working with kids the week of Dec. 9. Those interested in volunteering should contact the Chautauqua Elementary School’s reading intervention teacher, Jennifer Salisbury, for more details at jsalisbury@vashonsd.org. Adults of all ages can apply for the positions.

Brenno knows well the rewards and sense of satisfaction that elders can find in working with young children.

From 2002 to 2016, she ran a program at the school called Lunch Club — a place for children who wanted to avoid the whirlwind of post-lunch recess to play chess, knit, or spend time with their noses in a book. Working with a team of disabled adults she recruited as her helpers, Brenno created a quiet environment for kids who needed downtime, rather than a raucous recess experience.

Standing 5 foot 1 inch tall and weighing 105 pounds, Brenno isn’t much bigger than some of the pupils she helps, but her influence at Chautauqua has been enormous, according to Hodgson.

“I quickly heard of the legend of Grammy from students who were glowing about their time with her, and the staff would regularly reference her in conversations about impactful community members,” Hodgson said.

Hodgson said he was eager to welcome other seniors to help in the reading intervention program.

“Our senior volunteers have lived and seen so much, and a young and inquisitive mind can only benefit from learning from someone who lived in the pre-digital age,” he said.

Information sessions for volunteers for Chautauqua’s reading program will take place from 9:30 to 10 a.m. and 3 to 3:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 5, in room 101 of Chautauqua Elementary School.

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