The neighborhood changed but these volunteers didn't

For more than two decades, they have volunteered at the Stone Mountain school because they love children, and because they were asked.

Anne Sims, 78, first arrived in 1972, when her youngest son was a kindergartner and Hambrick was a predominately white school in a middle-class neighborhood.

Then sometime around 1989, about the time the neighborhood and Hambrick changed, 84-year-old Trudy Dickinson showed up.

In a school where the average age of volunteers and parents and teachers for that matter is under 40, the grandmothers have emerged as the older people in residence, remnants of schoolhouses past.

For instance, schools were either black or white but never both. Teachers didn’t worry about teaching to the test and there was no such thing as the SAT.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 63.4 million people volunteered through or for an organization at least once last year.  Dickinson volunteers at Hambrick four days a week; Hambrick once a week.

Neither of them lives in Stone Mountain, at least not any more.

Sims left the neighborhood in 2000 when she walked the three blocks from her home to Hambrick . Only when her knees got bad and two of her children begged her to move closer to them in Lilburn did she ever consider pulling up stakes.

Now her husband, Howard, drives her the 17 miles each week to Hambrick.

“He knows it something that means a lot to me,” said Sims, who never learned to drive. “He was a teacher so he has a heart for schools, too.”

A native of Clarkston, Sims graduated in 1952 from Agnes Scott with degrees in French and English. Three years later she married Howard and spent seven years teaching elementary school in DeKalb County before giving it up to raise her children.

She started volunteering at Hambrick the same year her oldest son entered kindergarten there.

At first, she helped check out books. Then the school librarian asked if she’d ever done a bulletin board.

“I did one and she liked it,” said Sims. “It was my job from then on.”

Although a lover of art, Mary Etta Thomas, the school’s library media specialist, said, “I couldn’t draw a straight line. I still can’t.”

Sims, Thomas said, takes her ideas and makes them come to life.

“If she ever retires, we’re going to retire together,” said Thomas.

Growing up, art was a form of entertainment, Sims said. It wasn’t until she started volunteering at Hambrick that she found an outlet for it.

And so once a week for the past 37 years, she has made her way here, a briefcase stuffed with the beginnings of her next bulletin board in hand.

Thomas described Sims’ artwork as “touchy feely boards” that draw kids in and inspire them to read.

“Many of our children have figured out her schedule so they can come and watch her work,” she said.

Sims uses her creativity to create charts and other displays. It’s not unusual for her to stop and talk with students who seek her out, Thomas said.

Her counterpart, Trudy Dickinson comes practically every day, driving the 10 miles from her home in Tucker.

The children, Dickinson said, keep her going.

Like Sims, Dickinson is a former teacher who retired in 1989 from Gwinnett County schools. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1946 with a degree in dietetics and worked nearly 10 years in chemistry labs and hospitals in four different states.

When a boss suggested she’d make a good teacher, she switched gears, took some education courses and in 1960 earned a teaching certificate. Her first job was at Duluth Elementary, then Midvale Elementary where she remained until she retired.

A month later, she answered an ad in the newspaper asking for volunteers at Hambrick.

She was assigned to assist a small group of teachers, but her role soon expanded to working one-on-one with students struggling with math and reading.

It was her way of making use, Mrs. Dickinson said, “ of the greatest gift that God gave me, time.”

Unless it’s Thursday, her standing bridge date, she is at Hambrick from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

She has a story for every day she's signed in at the school. Like the time she asked a boy which is bigger, the five or the three?

"Oh, I don’t know," he said.

Well, Dickinson recalled asking him, "Would you rather have five pieces of candy or three?"

"Five," he said.

"Well five is bigger," Dickinson replied.

Such simple, real life strategies have become Dickinson’s trademark, making her invaluable to the school, Thomas said.

When parents aren’t able to attend school programs because they have to work, Dickinson comes and sits with the student.

She is also a mentor to three students. “One of our students is about to graduate high school and he still comes by to see her,” said Thomas.

Asked why she doesn’t just volunteer in her neighborhood school, Dickinson says she couldn’t leave now if she wanted to. Hambrick’s children and faculty are embedded in her heart.

“I enjoy coming here so much and everybody is so welcoming,” she said.

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