Ibarra Elementary School volunteer is paid through children’s smiles

Irene Corey at home in Normal Heights. Photo courtesy of Irene Corey

Irene Corey has taught elementary school in Ohio, owned her own importing business, and had a successful career in real estate. But it is the 82-year-old retiree’s volunteer work reading to preschoolers at Herbert Ibarra Elementary in City Heights that may be having the most impact on her life.

“I get back way more than I give,” Corey said. “I thought I was going to do something to help others. But they have helped me overcome some loneliness and a need to feel needed. Now that I’m no longer employed and no longer raising children of my own, I sometimes felt useless. I don’t feel that way when I’m with these wonderful children. They make me feel important.”

Corey said she had been looking to do some volunteer work for some time and had even signed up to deliver groceries to AIDS victims. But the latter didn’t quite work out.

“I couldn’t find the addresses, it was raining, the bags were getting wet, groceries were falling out of the bag, I was chasing oranges down the street. It was just not for me.”

Her first morning of service for the Rolling Readers program at Ibarra Elementary was different.

“This is something that just fits,” she said. “It’s not complicated at all. I’ve been reading to kids all my life.”

The three and four year old children are part of a preschool program aimed at giving them a head start in their studies and grasp of language.

“Many of them speak very little English; they’re just learning English. They come from Ethiopia, Iran, Latin America. I suspect many of them have been displaced, and some of them may have had some violent history in their short life, but they are thrilled to see me when I come in and they exude such happiness. It’s just wonderful to see.”

Corey spoke of the little things that have left an impression on her life, including a small Chinese boy who, when celebrating his birthday, patiently handed out pieces of cake, plastic plates, and forks to his classmates. “He was such a gentleman, really,” she said.

And she talked about a little girl from Africa who comes to school clad in a head scarf, blouse, robe, and long skirt. “She’s just an enthusiastic little kid,” Corey said. “There is just a bunch of energy in that child. She’s practically jumping out of her skin.”

Said Corey, who lives in University Heights and who reads every Tuesday for a half hour, “I can’t afford to give money, but I do have time that I can offer…I just want to make a difference to these little kids.”