Grandpa Earl

by | Dec 1, 2013 | Features

Story by Tanner Ott

For many students at Crawford Elementary School in Russellville, the first person they see when arriving at school in the morning is not one of a fellow classmate or teacher. It is the kind, smiling face of Earl Steen, also known to many students as “Grandpa Earl.” 

Opening car doors is one of Grandpa Earl’s many duties during his Tuesday visits to Crawford Elementary School, where he has volunteered for the last 17 years. But Earl, now 75, comes from an interesting background as his life’s journey led him to Russellville.
Earl was born in a Civil War era log cabin in the community of Dongola, which is located west of Marshall along highway 74 in western Searcy County. He moved to Phoenix, Arizona as a young child. There, Earl spent his school years and joined the Navy after his high school graduation. His tenure in the Navy lasted 20 years, most of which he spent as an electronics technician. Earl made a number of voyages across the Pacific Ocean including four trips to Vietnam for six to seven months each time.
After leaving the Navy in 1976, Earl moved to Russellville and began work at Arkansas Nuclear One. Earl retired from ANO in 1996, and it was not long before he began volunteering at schools in the River Valley. “I was contacted in 1996 by Crawford Vice-Principal Faye Westerman to come talk to a boy. I came and saw him several times, and it grew from that as they kept adding more people,” Earl said. “I told her that I didn’t know if I was patient enough to deal with kids, but she encouraged me to try.”
Throughout the past 17 years, Grandpa Earl, Mr. Earl or Mr. Steen has helped at Atkins, Pottsville, Center Valley and Sequoyah in addition to Crawford Elementary. Earl began volunteering at Atkins because his grandchildren attended there, and after one moved to Pottsville, he began work there too.
Earl’s title of Grandpa Earl came from a kindergarten teacher. “Once she called me that, all of the kids caught on, and they all call me that now,” Earl said. “It’s fun to hear kids come up to me, whether it is at school or anywhere else and call me Grandpa Earl.”

Earl’s duties on an average day begin around 7:20 each morning as students begin to arrive. Earl said this part of the job is one of his favorites as he greets each child arriving by car with a friendly smile. “It feels good to see the kids smile when I open the car door for them. It makes them happy to be there, and a kid’s smile is one reward I enjoy the most,” Earl said.
After the school day begins, Earl visits various classrooms and selects one or two students to work with. Earl assists the students with subjects such as reading, spelling and math. “There are times when a student needs help catching up on a certain subject, and I can step in and help him. It helps the teacher out to have me catch him up,” Earl said.
Earl added that the students love the time they get to spend with him. “I really try to encourage the kids,” Earl said. “I can give them one-on-one attention and just talk to them. Kids love having that attention. Most teachers have 15 to 20 students in their class, and there is just not much chance for one-on-one time,” Earl said. “That is where volunteers like me can come in and give those students time and attention, which is something they really need.”
Earl admitted that there can be challenges with some students, but it usually involves getting to know them and building trust. That issue is usually solved as Earl’s gentle appearance and caring smile ease the tensions of the child.
As lunchtime approaches, Earl heads to the cafeteria to help students make their way through the lunch line. “I love getting to eat lunch with them,” Earl said. “They all want me to sit and eat with them. They think that’s great.”
Earl spends the rest of the day roaming around classrooms and spending time with kids. He said that teachers appreciate the help he offers. “Lots of teachers and parents have thanked me for my time. They appreciate me being there,” Earl said.

Even though Earl loves having the kids recognize him for his service, sometime he makes an appearance as a different character. “One year I wore a Santa Claus suit while opening car doors. That got some surprised reactions from the kids,” Earl said. “Last year I dressed up as Santa for a Parent Teacher Organization meeting and more than 100 kids took pictures.”
One of the greatest rewards from helping the kids is seeing and talking to them later on in life, Earl said. “There are kids who I helped that have graduated college now. I know one boy who has entered the Marines and several others who have been successful,” Earl said. “Even though I might not recognize them at first, they are excited to come up and talk to Grandpa Earl. Seeing them later and having them remember spending time with me is a really nice reward.”
Earl added that he hopes to keep helping as long as he can physically do so. He admits to difficulty in hearing a student’s voice sometimes, but they usually communicate well. “I want to help as long as I can still go,” Earl said. “Those kids keep me going. I think that it is really important to stay active after retirement. There is a lot to do. Don’t just sit in a recliner; keep your legs and head at work,” Earl said. “It’s been a great life since retirement for me. Me and my wife stay busy, and our weeks go by fast. You don’t have to look for long for stuff to do because it will find you.”
Earl stressed the importance of volunteers at schools. “More people need to volunteer at our schools. I think people need to get involved at school even if you don’t have kids there. My kids are grown up and gone, but I still enjoy helping out everyone there,” Earl said. “I think it’s especially important for parents with kids in school to come help. They do not interfere with teachers, and they appreciate the help. It gets them more acquainted with the school and lets them spend time with their kids,” Earl said.

Earl also added that schools need more men to volunteer. “Male influence is lacking with so many female teachers at our schools. Our kids need both of those influences, and having more men volunteer would help that balance,” Earl said. “Even coming to eat lunch with your kids or grandkids is a great way to help. There are so many different ways volunteers can help out,” Earl said. “I just want to tell people that they need to be aware of what is going on.”
Another important aspect of volunteering Earl said is having the opportunity to invite the children to his church. Earl, who is a faithful member of First Free Will Baptist Church, said that there are several kids he works with that also attend his church. “I love seeing kids tell me that I go to their church. It’s not that they attend my church, but that I go to theirs,” Earl said. “Even though I know I cannot preach, I like to let them know that I am a Christian. I think that is really important. In the past I have went around and picked up seven or eight kids to bring to church on Wednesday nights. It is a great chance to introduce them to church and gives their parents peace of mind to know they are in good hands,” Earl said.
Earl added that he is just one of several volunteers from First Free Will Baptist who help out at Crawford. “I am there only on Tuesdays, but we have someone who helps out with car doors every day of the week,” Earl said. “Our church is helpful in several different ways, and it makes a better connection with the church and school.”
What began with helping one child in 1996 has grown into a passion for Earl. All of the memories and interactions he has had with the kids make the time he spent well worth it, Earl said. “The happy times I remember so well are special,” Earl said. “I have a lot of with the kids, and the teachers definitely appreciate that.”



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