Jennifer shares music and math with at-risk teens

retired math teacher is far from retiring

Retired math teacher Jennifer Calvert has an infectiously happy demeanor. While the average adult laughs just seventeen times a day, Jennifer easily gets that many laughs in before lunch.

Her zeal includes a total enthusiasm for math. She truly loves the subject.

That's why when she moved from Iowa to Spokane twenty years ago she wanted to keep her math skills fresh while waiting for a new job in the classroom. As she looked for a place to volunteer as a math tutor, Crosswalk teen shelter spoke to her.

“The underdog has always been a part of my heart,” says Jennifer. “I relate to those who lack resources, whose backs are up against the wall.”  

Maybe that's because she saw how her daughter—who was a teen mom like a number of the students at Crosswalk—struggled so hard to get her high school diploma and find stable housing of her own before being tragically killed in a car accident at the age of 21.

Just speaking of her daughter still brings tears to Jennifer's eyes. But she is quick to point out that this tough experience helps her relate to teen moms who are going through similar things her daughter did.

“It can be hard to relate to teenagers sometimes. But after years and years of teaching I've learned that teenagers, even troubled teenagers, are just people.”

Jennifer's first few days volunteering at Crosswalk teen shelter twenty years ago were challenging. 

Things didn't go how she planned. She was her usual friendly, empathetic self. But the teens at the shelter were skeptical.

“The kids didn't warm up easily. I couldn't get to that comfortable place with them,” says Jennifer. Despite her efforts things moved slowly and before she knew it she had a job teaching math, which meant she had to give up her volunteering.

But her heart didn't leave Crosswalk. Though she was short on time, she realized that she had other resources she could share. 

One day she glanced at a piano she had bought on a whim to take up lessons and realized she wasn't using it anymore. She donated the piano to Crosswalk  where it is now played every single day. She also stayed connected through regular financial contributions over the years.

Jennifer retired from teaching high school math in 2009 after 28 years.  But she loved math, found it fun, and “was not ready to quit having fun yet.”  So she came back to us one more time and filed an application to tutor math. 

“I am fortunate to be in this position in my life—even if it took till I was 65—to have the time and resources to volunteer like this,” says Jennifer. She encourages anybody in a similar position to do the same.  

At the time she submitted her application, the greatest need for tutors was with our foster youth programs. 

“I thought Jennifer would be perfect for helping out with the foster youth programs in the offices upstairs from Crosswalk,” says Volunteer Coordinator Shaun Antrim. “So I told her about SETuP, which provides all kinds of support to help foster youth go to college and succeed when they get there.”

She jumped at the chance to help foster kids.

“I think foster youth are done a tremendous disservice when they reach 18,” says Jennifer. “It's when they need resources the most and instead all their resources are cut. When a kid is trying to graduate high school or get their GED or attend community college, I get that math can often times be the thing that hangs them up.”

"They have this narrow hole to get through in order to get on with the rest of their whole lives. It's great to know that's an area where I can help."

She remembers her first day volunteering as a math tutor. As she sat, waiting for a student, at a conference table in an open area surrounded by offices, she could hear snippets of conversations as the staff and case managers worked with foster youth.

"My first impression was that I was surrounded by people who really care," recalls Jennifer. "It made me feel so good to be a part of that."

Jennifer is currently tutoring three foster youth—one high school student and two in community college. She meets with each youth about once a week for an hour or more—depending on the difficulty of the math. Despite her busy schedule (Jennifer substitute teaches two or three times a week and tutors math at St. Margaret's Shelter as well) she always stays as long as it takes for the student to understand.

Jennifer thrives on the one-on-one interaction she gets with tutoring. Sometimes she is so enthusiastic about the subject that the excitement rubs off onto the person she is tutoring.