Janice Rubin of Highland Beach is one of 85 people
who volunteer for Listen to Children. Kurtis Boggs/The Coastal Star
By Ron Hayes
Every week, about 85 men and women arrive at 53 elementary and middle schools in Palm Beach County.
They stay perhaps 40 minutes each, meeting with students in an empty classroom, a guidance office — someplace quiet and private.
They do not help the students with their math homework. They do not tutor their reading.
“And listen and listen and listen,” says Janice Rubin of Highland Beach. “When you think you can say something back that would be helpful, you do so. But sometimes all you really need to do is listen, and let them express themselves.”
For the past two years, Rubin has been one of those 85 volunteers who support Listen to Children, an outreach of the Mental Health Association of Palm Beach County.
Founded in 1989, Listen to Children pairs students who may be having problems at home or school with a friendly, disinterested adult who is not a parent, teacher or guidance counselor.
“They’re not necessarily behavioral problems,” says Val Santiago Stanley, the program’s coordinator, “but perhaps just boisterous, or introverted, or their grades are declining for no apparent reason.”
All volunteers undergo criminal and reference checks before they’re assigned to a school, as well as a two-hour training session, during which they vow to keep their conversations with students confidential, unless the child threatens violence against him or herself or others.
“After that, the kids pretty much run the conversation,” Stanley says. “From academics to family issues to love interests.”
Marilyn Freedman of Boynton Beach has been listening for 12 years. A retired elementary school educator from Fairlawn, N.J., she received the program’s Mentor of the Year award in 2011.
“I go to Crystal Lakes Elementary School one morning a week and meet with four children,” she says, “and I love it. I’ve learned not to give too much advice, but just to listen carefully.”
Sometimes she brings games, or modeling clay, but her main tools are her ears — and her heart.
“I remember a child who was having difficulties because of a step-parent, and suddenly he realized there were nice things about that step-parent,” she recalls. “Sometimes you get a child who’s very shy and has difficulty making friends. These aren’t all children from troubled homes, by any means. Sometimes it’s the parent who initiates our involvement.”
Every Tuesday, Rubin meets with two children at Poinciana Elementary School in Boynton Beach.
“The most important thing we bring is unconditional acceptance,” she says. “We’re not there to criticize them or disapprove. You may not accept all their behavior, but you have to be able to accept these children unconditionally.”
And soon, another Highland Beach retiree will be getting an earful.
Anne-Grethe Parkin has completed her training and expects to begin meeting with students at Orchard View Elementary in Delray Beach this month.
“I figured if I can help only one or two children, that will be better than nothing,” she says. “I may be a little nervous at first, but I feel good about it.”
Most of the volunteers are retirees, often former teachers, and overwhelmingly female — an imbalance Stanley would like to correct.
“We’re not there to put the blame on where the ball was dropped in the child’s upbringing,” she says. “We’re there to help catch the
For more information about volunteering, call the Mental Health Association of Palm Beach County at 832-3755.