Why do the first graders at Ferron Elementary School call volunteer Jane Capizzo “Grandma Jane”? “Well, the hair is right. I’m not a teacher. What else would they call me?” Capizzo recently responded in her characteristically understated manner.
Her manner and response make it easy to see why she is so loved by the children and faculty she volunteers with as a foster grandparent through Volunteers of America. Those children and faculty know what a treasure “Grandma Jane” is since she began volunteering seven years ago, driving 30 miles every day to share her time.
“We just think the world about her,” Principal Brian Dawes expressed. “She doesn’t feel like she does anything special. She doesn’t feel like she deserves and credit or recognition. She’s just happy to be here and enjoys the kids, and enjoys the staff and faculty.”
Capizzo’s dedication and heart were acknowledged this weekend as she was recognized as one of 10 winners of the 2011 Huntsman Awards for Excellence in Education at the Little America Hotel in Salt Lake City. Each year the Huntsmans recognize three administrators, six teachers and one volunteer for their commitment to educating children.
Capizzo has revealed the level of that commitment by volunteering four to five hours a day for seven years, while only being compensated by the school providing her lunch. Asked what has driven her to volunteer for so long, Capizzo said simply, “Immortality… I think that’s the word for it. Because if one or two kids, later on in life, can say, ‘I cannot do that, Grandma Jane would not approve,’ that’s being immortal to me.”
Capizzo’s recognition was announced at Ferron Elementary on April 26 by Karen Huntsman, who traveled to present the award to “Grandma Jane” in front of the children she spends so much time serving.
The announcement came as a shock to Capizzo, who didn’t realize she was the person being honored at an assembly until her name was announced a second time. “I have a little boy sitting next to me, and I’m trying to keep him quiet,” she related. “Then she mentions my name, and I looked around wondering, ‘When is she going to stand up?’ She had to say it again, and I said, ‘Oh that’s me!’ That was the first I had heard about it. Everybody knew, and nobody said a word. That was a shocker.”
The award and the response from the students were especially touching to Capizzo. “They all cheered, and I got a standing ovation. Isn’t that wonderful?” she said. “That brought tears to my eyes, you know? It was kind of nice. I’m doing something that I like to do. Why should I get rewarded for it?”
“Grandma Jane” began volunteering her time seven years ago after she had moved from Las Vegas to Emery to live with her sister. After a few years, she began looking for something to fill her time. She explained, “For four years I sat and did the puzzles, the reading books, going on walks, going on vacations, and I got bored. I saw an advertisement for foster grandparents, and I called and I joined, and I’ve been with them ever since. I enjoy it.”
After working with students to improve their reading for the first few years she spent at Ferron Elementary, Capizzo settled into her current position helping in the first grade. She loves the opportunity to work with the children who are just learning to read and do simple math. “We try to get those kids ready for second grade the best we can, and usually they come out pretty good,” she said. “When they come in, most of their numbers are backwards– fives, sevens and nines seem to be the problem– and by the time they leave, there may be one or two that still have problems, but the rest of them are perfect. Watching them, it’s just a miracle.”
As the teacher of the first grade class that Capizzo spends most of her time volunteering in, Lisa Behling knows firsthand how much good “Grandma Jane” does for her students. She was thrilled to find out that her friend was winning the award. In fact, she shared that she had to call back the person who called to inform her of Capizzo receiving the award, because she was so excited by the initial conversation that she didn’t get all of the information.
“I was so excited for what this would mean to her,” Behling explained. “Not only does she deserve that recognition for everything she has done, but the award means a lot. She is so deserving.”
Capizzo recognizes the importance of academics for the first graders she works with, but she also views her job as “acting as a second pair of eyes for the teacher”. She places a great deal of importance on teaching the students to have good character. “I try to teach the kids to have real respect for each other, that there are consequences for their actions, and to be, more or less, kind to each other,” she said. “And when I see them do that, it kind of rewards me back.”
She related one such experience she had with several boys on the school playground on a rainy day. She saw many of the students running over worms that were out on the sidewalks because of the rain, and called four or five of them over to discuss it. She told the boys that the worms had left the grass because they wanted to live.
“I said, ‘Don’t you think we should help them?'” she recalled. “Pretty soon there were seven or eight of them picking up all the worms from the grass. A few months later, we had another rainstorm, and the worms were out on the grass. When I came to school, they ran over to me and said, ‘We already picked up the worms!’ It’s the kindness for things that are helpless. They remembered. That’s what gives you the good feeling inside.”
Though Capizzo did not want to focus on it, she finally revealed that her early life was a difficult one. She was born in Huta StepaЕ„ska, Poland, and in her childhood, her family was forced from their home into work camps during World War II. After finally being released at the end of the war, they had to immigrate because they “had no home to go back to.”
Though this background is one that one might expect would have affected the importance she places on kindness and respect, she doesn’t see it that way. “Not really. It’s just a normal thing,” she stated. “That’s what everybody does, isn’t it? If I can teach them that every action has a consequence, I think I’ve accomplished a lot. It’s a lesson they should learn.”