Sister Paulita Walters may have retired June 30 from the Readiness Center in Benton Harbor after 39 years, but she’ll still be around volunteering.
“I can’t imagine life without children,” said the 74-year-old member of the Sisters of Mercy, an international religious order. “I’ve taught, as of the end of this year, for 52 years. And I still love it.”
But she will no longer have all the responsibilities. Those fall to Martha Thieneman, who has worked at the center since 2008 and took over as executive director July 1.
“She’s going to be wonderful,” said Sister Paulita, who grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. “It’s a privilege to be able to hand something over to people that you know and they know the values, they embrace the values. I know that my dream will continue.”
Sister Paulita said she was working as a first grade teacher in a Catholic school in a Detroit suburb when, in the late 1970s, she started spending her summers in Benton Harbor helping the children.
While volunteering at an interdenominational Bible school, she said a third grade boy asked for help spelling a word.
“I knew it was a word that my current first graders could spell,” she said.
Over and over again, she said she saw that older children wanted to do simple projects because they had never done them before.
“My heart was just touched,” she said. “They were really intelligent children who didn’t have the opportunities that my suburban children had.”
One of her Benton Harbor parents told her that it’s easy to help a child when you know how.
“I had never thought of that,” she said.
That’s when her dream of teaching not just preschoolers, but their parents, started to form.
At the Readiness Center, which Sister Paulita started in 1980, parents don’t just drop off their preschoolers. They stay and after spending about 30 minutes working with their child, they go to their own activities.
Sister Paulita sat down with Staff Writer Louise Wrege recently to discuss her dream and her life.
What was your dream with the Readiness Center?
My dream was to help inner city parents know how to help their children – how to teach, how to feel confident asking questions of teachers, how to trust their own judgement of their own child. How to be there for their children, especially as it relates to school. And to help make firm the bond between parent and the child. To help them appreciate their child’s strengths and to be realistic about areas where they need to grow, but not to be discouraged. They are the best advocate for their children.
How do field trips help with learning?
Learning is easier if you’ve had experiences. Field trips are key. And with preschoolers, any field trip the child goes on, a parent goes with them so they can talk about those experiences. The field trip can be going to the pumpkin patch or to an apple orchard. To see apples growing on trees. To see cider being made and know that it comes from apples.
I am a firm believer that learning should be fun. If I can get the children to want to learn, to be excited about learning, it’s fun. Field trips are part of what makes learning fun. But even in the classroom, every day, they should have had fun while learning.
How did you get started in Benton Harbor?
I taught first grade until I came here. I wrote a grant. I had this thought that I could help the people in Benton Harbor by helping the parents. I came to Benton Harbor with $2,000. I will be always grateful to the first people who said they wanted to be part of this. Because it was just a dream for me. I have to say, the people gave it shape. Everything that was added was because the parents wanted it. Doing programs for the parents, that was at their initiative. They would say they wanted to do this, and I would try to find the resources to make it happen.
The after school program. That was started because a little boy who used to live close used to come with a sheet of paper and ask for help with his homework. I realized how some of them needed help with their homework. He was about a third grader at the time. He kept wanting to come in. He had been a preschooler here.
It’s different now, because we have waiting lists for everything. But back then, I could go with my heart and tell them they could be a part, too.
What keeps you going?
I love being with children. I love seeing their little faces light up when they understand something. And the children here in Benton Harbor are so loving. We’re like family. This is my passion. Being with children brings me joy.