Kids at the Child Development Lab help to celebrate volunteer's 95th

Children at Penn State’s Child Development Lab (CDL) celebrated the 95th birthday of one of their favorite volunteers -- Norene Bigelow, affectionately known as “Grandma Norene.” The children surprised her on Thursday, Nov. 18 with a special song, which they wrote and performed with local children’s musician Mark Ross. They also presented her with an apron decorated with their handprints and a finger-painted serving dish.

Bigelow has always been involved in children’s education. She spent 20 years as a kindergarten teacher in a school in New York. “She still thinks like a teacher,” said Linda Duerr, director of the CDL. “She easily picks up on their interests and different characteristics, and she wants to make a difference. She doesn’t just come spend time with the children; she comes with a purpose.”

“Starting young children out is an important part of the school experience,” said Bigelow. “So much of their education depends on the attitudes they pick up on, through the adults they are with.”

Most days she shows up at the CDL, she comes prepared with her “bag of tricks,” which many of the CDL children have come to look forward to, said Duerr. There’s always a new surprise waiting inside the bag, whether it’s a puzzle, a game, a costume, or a craft (one day, she taught the children how to crochet). When she walks into the CDL’s preschool room, children run to a couch where Bigelow always sits, so that they can talk with her.

Bigelow has been volunteering at the CDL for eight years, and she now volunteers twice a week -- once in a preschool room, once in an infant and toddler room. “She has become our most consistent and dedicated volunteer,” said Duerr.

She first started volunteering at the CDL because her daughter, Jill Curley, was in charge of one of the rooms. Curley pushed forward the idea of an intergenerational learning environment for the children, and Duerr continued this movement.

Working with Matt Kaplan, professor of agricultural and extension education, Duerr created several programs for older volunteers to visit the CDL, or to bring CDL children to visit older adults at their residences. The children benefit from these trips, but Duerr says that having the opportunity to make a lasting connection with someone like Grandma Norene is much more meaningful for children. “One relationship is more powerful than many short trips,” said Duerr. From talking with Bigelow, children can learn that it is possible to be active and to engage others throughout a person’s life.

“She inspires the adults here, and the children see her as a friend,” said Duerr. “She’s still so active and caring for others. I look at her and think to myself, ‘Can I be doing this at 95?’ I’m just not sure.”

Bigelow said she benefits from her time with the children, too. “The children accept me so easily,” she said. “It has been inspiring for me.”

When she’s not volunteering at the CDL, Bigelow is making crafts, hosting theme parties for her friends at her residence in Brookline, writing poetry, or volunteering with her church.

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Last Updated March 21, 2011